Amid a pandemic and a national reckoning on race, the rise of white supremacy and the repercussions from a historic attack on democracy, Martin Luther King Jr.’s life was celebrated Monday as hundreds demonstrated in Boston to demand justice and protection of civil rights.
In Grove Hall, a racially diverse crowd of more than 200 people gathered in the afternoon outside the neighborhood’s branch library to demand change in Boston and across the nation.
“We’re going to keep on ramping up the pressure until we do get justice,” Brock Satter told demonstrators, leading them in a chant of “Freedom winter!”
At another gathering of about 200 people later in the day, protesters rallied in Roxbury to protest police violence against Black residents.
“We’re out here today because enough is enough. I needed them to know that we wouldn’t hide in the house,” Monica Cannon-Grant said to the crowd.
The city’s annual tribute to King, who earned his doctorate in theology in 1955 at Boston University, looked considerably different than prior years. The COVID-19 pandemic forced most gatherings online, such as an annual breakfast that usually draws hundreds.
Service projects performed in his name were largely canceled this year, though the nonprofit Volunteers Incorporating Black Excellence (VIBE) held a small event in Mattapan to make books for children.
The King breakfast held online paid tribute to the civil rights leader and honored the legacy of US Representative John Lewis, a civil rights icon and Georgia lawmaker who died in July.
US Representative Ayanna Pressley, who addressed the King ceremony Monday morning, tied the work of leaders like King and Lewis to the demonstrators of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I think of the justice seekers . . . who have taken to the streets in the name of good trouble, in communities across our country, in continuation of the civil rights movement,” the Boston Democrat said.
Today’s demands for justice and the protection of Black lives and rights — using words that could have been on the lips of civil rights marchers decades ago — come as marchers in Boston and across the country protest the killings of Black people, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery last year.
The coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic havoc have also disproportionately affected Black Americans and other communities of color.
This year’s celebration of King’s life — he would have turned 92 on Jan. 15 — also comes between two polar-opposite events in the nation’s history.
On Wednesday, Joe Biden, who won the 2020 election, will be sworn in as the nation’s 46th president, while Kamala Harris, will become the first Black woman and person of South Asian descent to serve as vice president.
Biden’s victory has been widely credited to a historic turnout of Black voters, particularly in places like Georgia, which also elected a Black man earlier this month to represent the state in the US Senate for the first time.
But the inauguration will occur just two weeks after thousands of rioters supporting President Trump invaded the US Capitol in a failed bid to disenfranchise millions of voters by overturning the presidential election.
The Rev. Dr. Jay Williams, the lead pastor of Union Church Boston, told attendees of the 51st annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Breakfast that the nation witnessed the unveiling of white supremacy during the insurrection.
“In the siege on the Capitol, we have come face to face with the very real threat that white privilege and white fragility and white backlash [that] threatens the very fabric of our democracy and the fulfillment of King’s dream,” Williams said. “You see, the arc toward justice is yet unfinished.”
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, a pastor of a North Carolina church who also spoke at the Boston King event, said the nation must dismantle “interlocking evils,” among them systemic racism and poverty, ecological devastation, and lack of access to health care.
“If we want to heal the soul of America, we must bind up broken bodies and broken communities,” Barber said. “We cannot be at ease. We must hear the cries of the millions and millions of people [who] are hurting, and turn that mourning into policies of hope.”
Calls for justice were on display during the separate protests Monday afternoon in Boston.
In Grove Hall, during the demonstration organized by Mass Action Against Police Brutality, Satter spoke of King’s concerns not only about race, but about poverty and militarism, as the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic continue to hit Black and brown communities harder than others and the nation reels from the assault on the Capitol.
He said the group’s demands include jailing police who kill civilians and reopening all the relevant cases.
“There’s no statute of limitations on murder,” Satter said.
He criticized Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who President-elect Joe Biden has nominated to be secretary of Labor, as a “do-nothing mayor who regularly apologizes and downplays acts of police brutality in the city.”
Walsh’s office on Monday pointed to a statement the mayor made last month on police misconduct, highlighting changes like implementing body cameras for officers and convening a police reform task force.
Walsh earlier this month signed an ordinance creating an independent office to investigate officer misconduct, which was seen as one of the task force’s most significant proposals.
“We never want to see police officers using more force than necessary, even when tensions are high,” Walsh said in December.
During Monday’s protest, some people held signs with messages including, “Jail killer cops,” and “Accountability now!”
“What do we want? Justice!” the crowd chanted. “When do we want it? Now!”
Jennifer Root Bannon, the sister of Juston Root, who was fatally shot by police in Chestnut Hill after a chase last February, said he was only armed with a fake gun and his death was unnecessary.
“Execution in Chestnut Hill! Unneeded! Uncalled for!” she told the crowd before quoting one of King’s most famous statements: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Root’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit in US District Court. Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey has said police believed Root to be carrying a real gun.
In Roxbury, where protesters gathered outside Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, Cannon-Grant said King, like other activists, is much more widely beloved now than he was during his lifetime, when he was challenging established systems of power.
The struggle is still going on, she said, and neutrality is not an option.
“This is a time when you are either part of this movement or against this movement. Pick a side,” she said.
Tashawna Boston, a 38-year-old Boston Public Schools teacher and mother of four who attended the protest, said she sees inequity daily in education, housing, and the criminal courts system.
“We don’t want this to be about us versus them,” she said. “We want equality for everyone.”