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Martin Luther King Jr. remembered as Twelfth Baptist Church honors Wu with MLK legacy award

Mayor Michelle Wu received the MLK Legacy Award from senior pastor Rev. Willie Bodrick, II during Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation Ceremonies at the Twelfth Baptist Church on Sunday.Matthew J Lee/Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

The Rev. Willie Bodrick II, senior pastor at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, stood at the pulpit Sunday and recalled the first time he met Michelle Wu a decade ago.

The two were graduate students at Harvard — Wu in law school and Bodrick at the divinity school — when they took a class with renowned Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree. One day after class, Ogletree introduced Bodrick to Wu, telling them, “You all should get to know each other.”

“Little did I know back then, [and] what I’m so thankful to know now, is how God would use this person, this woman, to stand and be a bold leader for change,” he said Sunday.

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“I’m thankful for her friendship, but I’m more excited for her zeal for justice” he continued. “I’m thankful for her poise in the midst of protests, to see that the right thing must be done.”

Bodrick presented Wu with this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award during the church’s annual convocation celebrating the civil rights leader’s life and legacy, six days before what would have been his 93rd birthday. King was an assistant minister at the Twelfth Baptist Church in the early 1950s while he earned his doctorate in systematic theology at Boston University.

Wu has faced backlash in the weeks since she announced a vaccination requirement for all city workers amid a winter surge in COVID-19 cases, fueled in part by the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Protesters gathered outside City Hall last week as Wu swore in the new City Council, the small crowd at times disrupting the ceremony with chants and boos while holding signs lambasting the vaccine and mask mandates.

Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants who is the first woman and first person of color elected as mayor of Boston, has also been the target of hateful, racist, and misogynist messages.

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Bodrick and others who spoke during the ceremony late Sunday afternoon praised Wu for standing up to the vitriol she has faced while making policy decisions in the face of a global pandemic.

“Leadership isn’t easy, and sometimes you have to make decisions for the betterment of the body and of the city so that everyone might find safety, freedom, and comfort in a time where we’ve lost so many,” Bodrick said.

The service was joyous with celebratory hymns performed by the ministry’s musicians and with Bible readings as various speakers took turns at the pulpit.

The Rev. Jeffrey Brown, an associate pastor at the church and co-chairman of King Boston, an organization that promotes King’s legacy in the city, traced the history of his involvement with the church and the role it played in the civil rights leader’s life. It was a secretary at the church, Brown said, who introduced King to Coretta Scott, a student at the New England Conservatory of Music.

“They fell in love, and eventually after he graduated with his doctorate, finishing all of his course work, they got married and they went off into history,” he said.

King rose as a national leader in the push for civil rights, crisscrossing the Southeastern part of the United States as he led numerous marches and inspired local organizers to demonstrate peacefully.

Decades later, his words continue to inspire a new generation of leaders in the fight for equality.

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“As a youth of today, Dr. King has taught me to speak and use my voice to promote change and give awareness to problems that need fixing,” said Lauren Crockton, a senior at Cathedral High School, who spoke to the crowd. “I’m reminded that we are living in urgent times. Fifty-four years later, we are still fighting for voting rights for all people. We are still fighting against racism. We are still fighting for economic justice. We are still fighting for a more just educational system. The fight is not over, so we have work to do. We too must become drum majors for justice.”

When Bodrick stepped aside to give Wu space at the pulpit, she spoke about the importance of getting a COVID-19 vaccine and booster and honored the historic role the church has played in pushing forward in the fight for equal rights.

“Once again we find ourselves in the midst of an intense surge,” she said. “Once again we find ourselves asking, pushing for everyone to get vaccinated, get boosted, to do your part. And it often feels like, year after year, we’re in the same place. But what we know from the people who have walked through this pulpit... we know that every bit of every step we take forward is a step not only for ourselves but our entire communities.

“And this is a moment, " she said, “where justice is really on the shoulders of the people.”

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Nick Stoico can be reached at nick.stoico@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickStoico.