Nation celebrates Martin Luther King Day; first lady hails his commitment to education, truth

Monday, January 21st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTA (AP) _ Under the shadow of America's war on terrorism, thousands gathered across the country Monday to pay tribute to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his message of unity and equality.

In Atlanta, a standing-room-only crowd of about 2,000 packed the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the civil rights leader once preached. Assassinated in 1968 at age 39, King would have turned 73 last Tuesday.

``I can't help but think how Dr. King would be pleased at how we've come together since Sept. 11,'' Sen. Max Cleland said.

First lady Laura Bush, who also attended the service, called King ``a man committed to peace and a man committed to change.''

``American history is unimaginable without him,'' Mrs. Bush said. ``He stood for truth, he did the will of God and made America a more just nation.''

King's widow, Coretta Scott King, asked people to use the holiday as a day of service, as did her son Martin Luther King III in Detroit.

``We don't see it as a day off,'' he said. ``We see it as a day on which people can be involved in community service.''

In Boston, King's eldest daughter, Yolanda, addressed 1,500 people at the city's largest annual MLK Memorial Breakfast. She said Sept. 11 had erased racial differences _ for now.

``Skin color was covered by the ash of burning towers,'' King said. ``Perhaps the best response to this tragedy is to not go back to normal.''

The aftermath of Sept. 11 left 42-year-old Joel Bourgeois suspicious, scared and filled with the need to be around other blacks to feel a sense of community. Bourgeois, who hasn't attended Los Angeles' King Day parade for years, was among the thousands who showed up at the event Monday.

Bourgeois said he believes the war on terrorism has taken a toll on King's nonviolent vision.

``I don't think Dr. King's dream may ever come alive soon,'' she said.

In St. Paul, Minn., former Vice President Walter Mondale said King would demand that America respect civil rights in its battle against terrorism.

``That's the only way to fight it,'' Mondale said. ``I'm sure if King were around, he would say that his struggle is designed to help all Americans be a part of the fullness of American life.''

Members of the Democratic-controlled Colorado Senate were among the politicians in Denver's 17th annual King parade and march. Senators had the day off for the first time since Colorado recognized the holiday in 1984.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives continued working.

In Raleigh, N.C., about 700 people marched about a mile in the rain to the former state Capitol for speeches recalling King's life and work.

``Civil rights are still being threatened,'' marcher Stephanie Distefano said from under her umbrella.

In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg warmly greeted David Dinkins, the only black to be elected the city's mayor, during a City Hall ceremony. He called Dinkins ``a friend, an adviser, and someone whose judgment I respect.''

New York's senators, Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, also attended the City Council ceremony.

Clinton said it's important to recall King's teachings, especially as the city works to rebuild its hope and landscape since the terror attacks.

``In the face of despair, he preached hope,'' she said.