By Jeff Amy
ATLANTA (AP) — The nation is marking the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with tributes Monday recalling his past struggles for racial equality, observing the federal holiday named for him against the backdrop of a presidential election year.
In an early tribute to King, Vice President Mike Pence spoke Sunday in Memphis, Tennessee, at a church service in which he recalled the challenges and accomplishments of the slain civil rights leader.
Before the service, Pence toured the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where King was fatally shot on April 4, 1968, while standing on a balcony.
“I’m here to pay a debt of honor and respect to a man who from walking the dirt roads of the Deep South, to speaking to hundreds of thousands on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, touched the hearts of the American people and led the civil rights movement to triumph over Jim Crow,” Pence said Sunday at the Holy City Church of God in Christ.
Pence spoke about King’s religion and how he “challenged the conscience of a nation to live up to our highest ideals by speaking to our common foundation of faith.”
Acknowledging the nation’s divisions, Pence said that if Americans rededicate themselves to the ideals that King advanced while striving to open opportunities for everyone, “we’ll see our way through these divided times and we’ll do our part in our time to form a more perfect union.”
As a presidential election looms this fall, divisions rankle, according to recent opinion polls.
Among black Americans, more than 80% said last year that President Donald Trump’s actions in office have made things worse for people like them, while only 4% said they thought Trump’s actions have been good for African Americans in general. That’s according to a poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The same poll found about two-thirds of Americans overall disapproves of how Trump handles race relations.
Trump is seeking to woo black voters, knowing he is unlikely to win them over en masse but hoping for more black support in critical swing states later this year. His campaign has stepped up outreach efforts, including to African Americans and Latinos, marking a departure from 2016 when Trump’s volunteer “National Diversity Coalition” struggled to make an impact. The campaign already has spent more than $1 million on black outreach, including radio, print and online advertising in dozens of markets, the campaign has said.
In King’s hometown of Atlanta, Monday’s commemorations could draw attention to the continuing leadership role of the clergy in African American thought and politics.
The Rev. Howard-John Wesley, senior pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, will be the keynote speaker at a service Monday at organized by the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
It will be held in the sanctuary of Ebenezer Baptist Church, which King and his father both led.
Wesley has argued that Christ should be remembered as a political radical and that Christians should challenge injustices of the established political and social order. King’s economic and antiwar activism can sometimes be bleached out of celebrations of the holiday, he has said. Wesley has been on sabbatical in recent months from the pulpit at his church, which has grown rapidly under his leadership.
U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Georgia Republican appointed earlier this month by Gov. Brian Kemp, planned to attend the Ebenezer Baptist Church event.
Ebenezer Baptist is now pastored by the Rev. Raphael Warnock, one of several Democrats who could challenge Loeffler in a November special election.
Monday’s planned gathering is one of a series of events honoring King’s legacy, including a Saturday night gala in Atlanta hosted by the King Center and a series of service projects organized by community groups.
Associated Press writer Corey Williams in Detroit contributed to this report.