Pastors and politicians gathered at a breakfast in Boston on Monday to commemorate the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and challenge everyone to help realize King’s dream of a better society.
Governor Deval Patrick, who has been a fixture at the event during his tenure as a governor, praised the late civil rights leader for bringing “love into public discourse” and commitment to public service.
“We could use more of Dr. King’s message right now,” said Patrick, noting that King believed everyone could serve his community in some way. “We could use more love in each of us, for each of us.”
About 800 people attended the breakfast at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, which has been held in Boston for 44 years and is the oldest event of its kind in the nation. King, who was assassinated in 1968 at age 39, studied in Boston before becoming the nation’s most prominent civil rights leader.
The keynote address was given by the Rev. Charles R. Stith, a former US ambassador to Tanzania and director of Boston University’s African Presidential Archives and Research Center.
Stith noted that King’s civil rights crusade started with a small protest against segregation of buses in Montgomery, Ala., and he encouraged others to learn from that example to make a difference.
“You don’t have to lead a movement,” Stith said. “You need to be faithful in the moment.”
Stith pointed out that almost everyone lionizes King today and nearly every major city has an MLK boulevard, avenue, or street.
But Stith lamented the fact many of those avenues are “some of the most decrepit, depraved, and undesirable parts of the city” when they should be beacons free of violence, drugs, and poverty.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who was swarmed by well-wishers after his speech, also used King’s words to encourage attendees to make a difference.
He said it will take the entire city’s working together to end thorny problems like violence and unemployment.
“We are all in this together,” Walsh said. “So I am asking all of you to serve our city, not just for Martin Luther King Day, but for every day.”
Walsh made similar calls for service at other King-themed events across the city later in the day, including one at the Museum of Fine Arts and another at Faneuil Hall.
“Today’s a day of service,” Walsh said Monday afternoon on the steps of the MFA. “Tomorrow’s Tuesday. Tomorrow’s a day when somebody needs service [too] — it doesn’t have to be on Martin Luther King Day.”
Walsh also said King’s words, particularly about fighting injustice and working toward equality, “resonate through the ages,” remaining relevant today.
The annual breakfast, which was punctuated by prayers and hymns, is organized by St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church and the Union United Methodist Church. It has more than a dozen corporate sponsors, including The Boston Globe.
The event marked the first time Walsh and his predecessor, Thomas M. Menino, were together since the new mayor was sworn in, according to a Walsh aide.
Menino was honored for his service to the city over the decades. He said he tried for his 20 years as mayor to provide opportunities to people in Boston and encouraged attendees to do the same, even if it was just offering to help a single disadvantaged youth in their neighborhood.
“We must continue to lift up all the people of Boston,” Menino said. “The work is not finished.”
Both of the state’s sitting US senators said the country still has far to go in realizing King’s vision when it comes to providing economic opportunities to all corners of society.
“This is not the America of Dr. King’s dreams, and it must not be our America,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, who often talks about the challenges facing the lower and middle classes in her speeches.
Senator Edward J. Markey said that King would be concerned that so many Americans are still living in poverty, and that women and minorities still earn less than white men.
“We must now rise up and we must make sure that we have a country that is fair,” Markey said, adding that he thought it was important to stop cuts to unemployment insurance and housing subsidies and advance campaign finance reform to limit the power of the wealthy. “We must seize this moment.”
Attorney General Martha Coakley also lamented the fact that so many Americans are struggling financially, arguing that antidiscrimination laws are not enough.
“True equality requires equality of opportunity,” Coakley said. “We know that is not just about preventing discrimination. It is about inclusion.
“It is about making everyone feel welcome in this society and in this economy.”Joshua Miller of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Todd Wallack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.