With personal reflections and calls to action, preachers and public officials paid tribute to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Monday morning before about 750 people at the city’s annual holiday breakfast honoring the civil rights leader.
Fifty years after King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, speakers invoked his commitment to racial and economic equality, and the enduring need to carry on his legacy.
Dion Irish, who heads the city’s civil rights office, spoke of the need to “recommit ourselves” to honoring King’s work, “not just today, but every day.”
“Because it’s our dream, too,” he said to the crowd at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.
“True progress is widely shared. That’s what we believe in Boston. That’s what Dr. King believed.”
It was the city’s 43rd annual breakfast commemorating King’s life, the country’s oldest such event.
Governor Deval Patrick, in Washington, D.C., for the second inauguration of the nation’s first black president, said via video message that it was fitting the “two historic events should intersect.”
King imagined this day before many Americans could “conceive of blacks and whites drinking from the same fountain,” Patrick said to applause.
Patrick recalled going to hear King speak in Chicago as a young boy, maybe 6 or 7. He couldn’t remember what King said that day, but remembered the “deep solemnity of the occasion.”
“He imagined America as what he called a ‘beloved community,’ ” Patrick said.
Citing King’s famous words that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Patrick called for a renewed focus on curbing inner-city violence and narrowing achievement gaps between minority and white students.
In the same vein, Martha Coakley, the state’s attorney general, said her office would “commit ourselves to ending gun violence in America.”
“We can do this,” she said to applause.
The federal holiday lent a chance to reflect on King’s wisdom and sacrifice, she said.
Sonia Chang-Diaz, a state senator from Boston, said strong voter turnout in Massachusetts cities this past election served as a tribute to King’s memory.
“We stood in line for hours, and we cast our ballot,” she said. Following the proverb, “When you pray, move your feet,” low-income and minority voters were determined to be heard, she said.
“We do not exist in the shadows of democracy,” she said.
Several speakers noted King’s ties to Boston. He attended graduate school at Boston University in the early 1950s, earning a doctorate in theology in 1955, and delivered sermons at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury.
In a keynote address, Harvard University minister and professor Jonathan Walton said that King’s true legacy, his push for economic justice and criticism of the US war in Vietnam, is too often brushed aside in favor of a “sterilized, sanitized” figure.
“We have reduced his contribution to an ephemeral dream,” he said. “We have deprived King’s legacy of its potency.”
In the mid-1960s, King became more outspoken against the country’s “imperialist practices” abroad and the concentration of wealth and power in American society. He could no longer “turn a blind eye” to the country’s “moral failings,” Walton said.
“He moved beyond civil rights to human rights,” he said to applause. “King matured. He woke up.”
But over time, King’s more controversial views have been glossed over, Walton said. That has led the country to celebrate its racial progress while ignoring the deep inequalities that remain, he said.
“It’s easier to celebrate a dead icon than heed the admonitions of a living prophet,” he said, adding that King’s work is best honored by actions, rather than words.Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.