ATLANTA - Thousands of people gathered in-person and online to experience the 56th Martin Luther King Jr. Beloved Community Commemorative Service at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Dignitaries and celebrities paid a visit to the Sweet Auburn neighborhood to honor the legacy of Rev. Dr. King and to encourage the world to take the reins and continue his fight for civil rights. This year's theme was "It Starts with Me: Shifting the Cultural Climate through Study and Practice of Kingian Nonviolence."
The service opened at 10 a.m. sharp with a traditional hymn: "Hallelujah." The Covington Regional Ballet danced as the Commemorative Service Choir sang.
Ebenezer Baptist Church serves a weekly congregation of 6,000 people, according to its website. But on Monday, tens of thousands of people tuned in online. Atlanta natives Rev. Reginald Sharpe Jr. and Rev. Natosha Reid Rice were the first to hit the podium, welcoming all visitors and wishing Rev. Dr. King a heavenly 95th birthday.
Rev. Reginald Sharpe Jr. and Rev. Natosha Reid Rice
"We want to invite all of you to celebrate; to celebrate with love, to celebrate with worship, to celebrate with words, to celebrate with bringing you fully in this space as the theme tells us. It puts the impetus on me, on each and every one of us, to shift the narrative," Rice said.
The two opened the stage to gospel singer Koryn Hawthorne, who gave an emotional performance of "America the Beautiful," followed by a unique rendition of the Negro National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," led by violinist, composer and arranger Karen Briggs.
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - JANUARY 15: Singer Koryn Hawthorne performs onstage during the 2024 Martin Luther King, Jr. Beloved Community Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church on January 15, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. The annual service is held in honor of the life of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who would have turn 95 on January 15th. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images)
Several leaders across religions offered scriptures and readings, representing unity despite cultural differences. Rabbi Elizabeth Brei read from the Old Testament, Pastor Don Mclaughlin read from the New Testament, and Sis. Shahida Sharif read from the Quran.
Rev. Dr. Bernice A. King, the CEO of the King Center, led the Call to Commemoration.
King offered hope for humanity, suggesting a way out of the negative trend she sees taking over the world: To take heed to her father's life's work, push it forward and embrace faith.
"By now, we should've discovered a way to live together, so we don't have to perish together as fools," Dr. Bernice King said. "So let me reiterate what I said last year: Stop saying 'I love King,' if you're not going to ‘live King.’"
Gospel singer Vicki Yohe was then invited to the stage to sing her beloved song "Because of Who You Are."
Several Georgia politicians offered greetings, starting with Gov. Brian Kemp and First Lady Marty Kemp, who joined the ceremony via video.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and Sen. Raphael Warnock, who also serves as the current senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist church, offered their own remarks.
Dr. Rev. Young Hoon Lee, a Pentecostal pastor from South Korea, said he was excited and honored to travel to Atlanta to speak at the service.
"We must dream dreams like Dr. King," he said. "Now is a time for us to continue dreaming. I dream that one day wars will cease and peace will reign throughout the world, by the grace of God. I dream that one day racism no longer exists, and human rights will be expected equally. I dream that one day Korea, the only country in this world that is still divided, will be united by the grace of God."
Several young people were invited to the program to recite several of King's iconic speeches.
Gregory Charles Brown represented Morehouse College; Jordyn Olivia Hudson represented Spelman College; Anthony Mitchell represented Clark Atlanta University; and Taliyah Scruggs represented Morris Brown College.
There were also recitations from several high-achieving high school students: Sydney Jeffrey, Christian Ellis Scott, Beya Sellami, Maria Bravo Montes, Jamel Ramsey Samad and Lakshita Ramesh Babu.
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - JANUARY 15: An attendee reads the 2024 Martin Luther King, Jr. Beloved Community Commemorative Service program book during the 2024 Martin Luther King, Jr. Beloved Community Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Janua
Atlanta opera singer Calesta "Callie" Day finished out the presentations with a song, "I Know the Lord Will Make a Way."
There were several special tributes made to Dr. Christine King Farris and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself.
Dr. Bernice King kicked off tributes honoring her aunt, remembering her for her colorful hats and profound service.
For decades, she organized this annual event and Dr. King says she was honored to put on these services alongside her.
After a tribute video and a musical selection from Dr. Uzee Brown, U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona began the tributes to Dr. King, followed by the president and CEO of Council on Social Work Education, Dr. Halaevalu F. Ofahengaue Vakalahi.
There were also unexpected guests, such as actor and philanthropist Ben Stiller.
"I know what you're thinking. 'How did the guy who made Zoolander and Tropic Thunder end up in the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church on this day?" he said. "As a Jewish kid, [I] felt [a] sense of pride seeing Rabbis standing in solidarity with Dr. King."
Former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney made a special tribute, too.
"I, too, must've felt the spirit of Dr. King," Cheney said. "Hugging Senator Warnock and following Ben Stiller is not what I thought I'd be here doing, but I am so honored at what I believe is the most significant church in our nation."
Grammy Award-winning gospel artist Jonathan McReynolds took his acoustic guitar to the stage, singing his hit song "God Is Good."
Giselle Walker, a sixth grader from the Coretta Scott King Young Women's Leadership Academy, offered a special tribute to the King family's beloved late matriarch.
After Walker, Rev. Dr. Bernice A. King introduced the keynote speaker for the morning, Rev. Shavon Arline-Bradley.
Arline-Bradley is the president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) and founding principal and CEO of R.E.A.C.H. Beyond Solutions, a public health, advocacy, and executive leadership firm promoting EDI, political and organizational strategy, risk management, government affairs, and technical assistance.
After Callie Day returned to the pulpit to sing "For Every Mountain," Arline-Bradley took over with a powerful message.
The audience erupted in a standing ovation as she took her seat. Koryn Hawthorne returned to the microphone and sang her hit song "Won't He Do It."
After an offering, bell ringing ceremony and benediction, the service closed out with the Anthem of the Movement, "We Shall Overcome."
The Commemorative Service Choir comprised of members from the choruses of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Central Presbyterian Church, Clark Atlanta University, Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur Seventh-day Adventist Church, East Point First Mallalieu United Methodist Church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, First Congregational Church, Georgia State University, Gospel Music Workshop of America, Atlanta Chapter, Heritage Chorale, New Haven, Connecticut, Morehouse Glee Club, Ray of Hope Christian Church, Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, Trey Clegg Singers, Uzee Brown Society of Choraliers and Wendell P. Whalum Community Chorus.