The event, which was televised by the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, was held in Atlanta at the Ebenezer Baptist Church — the congregation which King co-pastored with his father before his assassination in 1968.
“Last week, I was honored to once again visit your historic sanctuary together with members of the King family. And it is an honor to be with you today as our nation remembers the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Harris said.
“As has been said, as is known throughout the world, Dr. King was a prophet. He was a prophet in that he saw the present exactly as it was and the future as it could be. And he pushed our nation toward that future. Dr. King pushed even as his character was maligned. He pushed even as his family’s life was threatened. He pushed even as his own life was in jeopardy.”
Harris used the speech to advocate for voting legislation, noting that states such as Georgia have passed laws that “could make it more difficult for as many as 55 million Americans to vote.”
“The proponents of these laws are not only putting in place obstacles to the ballot box. They are also working to interfere with our elections to get the outcomes they want and to discredit those they do not,” she said. “That is not how democracies work. We know the threat we face. We know that this assault on our freedom to vote will be felt by every American, in every community, in every political party.”
Harris also invoked words from Coretta Scott King, the late civil right’s leader’s partner, who said: “Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.”
“Last week, the president and I visited Atlanta to deliver a message: It is time for the United States Senate to do its job. A landmark bill, as we all know, sits before the United States Senate: The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act,” Harris said. “This bill represents the first real opportunity to secure the freedom to vote since the United States Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act nearly a decade ago. And the Senate must pass this bill now.”
After her speech, Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, visited the Washington, D.C., food distribution center Martha’s Table for a brief appearance bagging groceries.
“As I’ve said before, there are a hundred members of the United States Senate, and I’m not going to absolve any of them,” Harris said when asked by a reporter if she had a message for Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
Manchin and Sinema have come under fire from their Democratic colleagues for refusing to back legislation to eliminate the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation.
In an address to volunteers at the non-profit, Harris said the COVID-19 pandemic had been isolating but that volunteer work is of particular importance.
“When we’re able to do this, it just reminds folks that they are part of a community,” she said.
Bernice King, CEO of The King Center and the youngest of King’s children, tweeted about her father’s legacy and said that his “influence is global” but also stressed the legacy of her mother.
“We can engage his teachings to eradicate injustice anywhere. In our World House today, there are malnourished children, war-ravaged villages, and families without clean water. Let’s commemorate toward challenging inhumanity and choosing justice,” she tweeted.
She added in a separate tweet: “[Coretta Scott King] was the architect of the King Legacy and founder of The King Center, which she founded two months after Daddy was assassinated. Without Coretta Scott King, there would be no MLK Day.”
Martin Luther King III, the couple’s oldest living child, wrote an op-ed for CNN with his wife, Arndrea Waters King, on Monday calling for Democratic leaders to eliminate the filibuster and push for voting legislation.
“Without that federal legislation, states will continue to be allowed to pass bills that restrict early voting and Sunday voting, purge voter lists that organizers worked tirelessly to create, and close polling stations in communities of color,” he wrote in the op-ed.
“This MLK Day, I will not accept empty promises in pursuit of my father’s dream. I do not want to see photo ops of elected officials if they are not willing to put voting rights over the filibuster,” he tweeted. “Today is a day of service and action. Congress must #DeliverForVotingRights.”
King later appeared at a news conference on voting rights with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others urging the passage of John R. Lewis Act. The Senate is expected to take up the bill Tuesday, but it faces likely defeat due to the reluctance of Manchin and Sinema to suspend the Senate’s filibuster rules.
“No matter what happens tomorrow, we must keep the pressure on and say no more empty words,” King told reporters. “Don’t tell us what you believe in, show us with your votes. History will be watching what happens tomorrow.”
Referring to monuments on the National Mall dedicated to the elder King and former presidents Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Pelosi said “all of them [have] tears in their eyes for the departure from our democracy that is happening right now – unless the truth is acknowledged and this legislation is passed.”
“As has been indicated by the King family, this bill is supported by all of the Democrats, House and Senate. It’s just the filibuster in the way,” Pelosi added. “So, in a way, if you really, truly want to honor Dr. King, don’t dishonor him by using a Congressional custom as an excuse for protecting our democracy.”