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At Twelfth Baptist Church, King celebration resounds with the political moment

Twelfth Baptist Church held its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation on Sunday.
Twelfth Baptist Church held its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation on Sunday.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

At the church where Martin Luther King Jr. worshiped during his time in Boston and where he was celebrated Sunday afternoon, the preacher wrestled with King’s enduring question.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice, and yet last night I found myself in 2021 — 56 years later — still asking the question King asked,” the Rev. Willie Bodrick II said in a sermon Sunday morning. “How long?”

With the Twelfth Baptist Church marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day — officially celebrated on Jan. 18 — with remarks from Attorney General Maura Healey of Massachusetts and an honoring of US Representative Ayanna Pressley, the national political moment resounded loudly.

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“We are seeing our world being shaken,” Bodrick said in his sermon.

As the election of the first African-American to the US Senate from Georgia was followed by a storming of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. last week, Bodrick connected the moment back to King.

“There’s a context for progress in this country because every time we’ve seen progress in this country, we’ve seen white vigilantes respond,” he said, calling for the congregation to stand up against injustice.

“Literally the reason we celebrate Dr. King right now is that he was willing to put his life on the line in a dangerous situation so that the society might be rescued from its hatred and vitriol,” Bodrick said. “So that’s what we have to do, church.”

Although King famously answered his own question during the 1965 Montgomery, Ala. speech “How long? Not long,” Bodrick said the question clearly still stood.

“So how long? How long will we ask how long? I propose we keep asking until we deal with the product of this unholy trinity of prejudice, power, and privilege,” he said.

Typically one of the church’s biggest events, the annual Martin Luther King Jr. service had most of its viewers online this year due to the pandemic.

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With the church capping attendance at about 10 percent of the building’s capacity, the event had only a small in-person audience and Pressley received honors virtually, although Healey was on hand to give the keynote address.

“Anytime I have opportunity to expound upon and celebrate the amazing words and deeds of Dr. King, I am grateful, but especially this year in the wake of violence and treason which has rocked our country and reminded us just how fragile our nation and democracy are,” Pressley said in a pre-recorded video message accepting the church’s leadership award.

“If these attacks and atrocities of the past four years — including those that occurred this past Wednesday — have shown us anything, it is the critical importance of speaking truth to power,” she said.

Healey also spoke about the Wednesday attack, which left five dead and forced lawmakers into hiding for hours, calling accounts of the incident “bone-chilling.”

“We must end white supremacy,” she said. “Because if we don’t do it now, God help this country. God help this world.”

Healey and other speakers spoke somberly of police killings of African-Americans and the racialized impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

Yet the event was also a celebration of King’s legacy in the historic recent achievements of Black leaders, like Boston City Council’s president, Kim Janey, who is set to become the first Black and first female mayor of the city.

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Mayor Martin J. Walsh was designated as president-elect Joseph R. Biden’s pick for labor secretary last week, which would promote Janey to the city’s top job.

Janey, who spoke briefly at the event and was loudly cheered by the small audience at her “home church,” said she intended to carry on the work of King in her time as mayor.

“Stepping into this role, I know how important an equitable economic recovery is to our city. This is how we begin to close the wealth gap in Boston and how we live out Dr. King’s legacy,” she said.

Bodrick said he thought about how King was “called to [the] moment” in his time, just as he and other leaders must embrace this moment.

“I come into this year with a different gravity,” said Bodrick, 32, who began leading the historic church earlier this month.

His own journey mirrors King’s: growing up a preacher’s son in Atlanta, coming to Boston for education, and stepping into the pulpit of the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, as King did in the early 1950s.

He vowed that the celebration of King will be more than just a remembrance of an extraordinary leader in another historical moment.

“We’re not just going to celebrate a legacy, but realize a reality,” he said.

An earlier version of this story had a word wrong in the quote in the second paragraph of this story. It has been corrected.


Lucas Phillips can be reached at lucas.phillips@globe.com.