Martin Luther King Jr. is honored at national prayer service in Washington

Bernice King scanned a sea of more than a thousand faces in the great church — black, white, Asian and Latino — and described her life as the youngest daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. She was 5 years old when he was assassinated in 1968.

Because he was so often on the road during the civil rights struggle, she said, “I came to know Dr. King more than I knew Daddy.”

But after his death and her own call to the ministry, she said from the pulpit on Saturday, “the Daddy I came to know was a servant of a high God, obedient.”

Summoning her rhetorical power, she challenged the crowd at a national prayer service at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. “Will you obey?”

Gathered in Northeast Washington for the service to honor King, those in the sanctuary stood and applauded. The service culminated a series of events last week linked to the opening of a memorial to the civil rights leader on the Mall.

Hurricane Irene forced the postponement of the dedication of the monument on the Tidal Basin until this fall. And an earthquake Tuesday damaged the Washington National Cathedral in Northwest and caused the prayer service to be shifted to the national shrine, on Michigan Avenue near North Capitol Street.

But “with all the things black folk have been through, ain’t no little hurricane going to stop this,” said the Rev. Joseph Lowery.

Lowery formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King in 1957 and delivered the benediction at the 2009 inauguration of President Obama. At 89, Lowery is one of the few remaining leaders who stood beside King and looked over the Mall during the March on Washington in 1963.

“I witnessed the nation’s response to his suffering” and his exhortations to move beyond race from that vista — and revisited it during the inauguration, Lowery said. “I sit in between the lines. Thank you, Jesus.”

As the lights inside the church dimmed, the voice of the man being remembered wrapped around the audience as recordings of King played twice. Passages from the Washington March affirming faith as a way to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

A passage from the speech in Memphis delivered the day before he was killed in 1968: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.”

For Mariya Dempsey, a 6-year-old from Vienna, “that was the best part. I liked the sound of Martin Luther King’s voice and when the lights went out.”

With the clarity of a child, she and her sister, Alyana, 9, summed up what they have learned about King. “That he had a dream,” Alyana said.

“That he talked about all people being good and everything is going to be okay,” Mariya said.

Hers was a distilled version of the emotion shown by men and women who were children themselves when King marched and were determined to come to the District to see the memorial.

Daisy Apollo, 57, of Chicago had just entered high school when King was killed. She stood at the front of the basilica as its bell tower played “We Shall Overcome.”

“I can hear my dad even now telling me, ‘They killed that man,’ ” Apollo said. “It so affected me as a child that I had to be here to be part of honoring him and the brotherhood that was his ideology.”

Diversity infused the prayer service, which included clergy who were Baptist, Episcopalian, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish.

“I have tried to pattern my life on Dr. King and accept all people for who they are,” said William Brown III, 57, who came from Verona, N.J., for the service and had stopped earlier to see the monument.

Brown, an architect, called the monument “amazing.”

“I appreciate its design,” he said, “but as a man knowing what that man did, I appreciate its strength.”

Mary Pat Flaherty works on investigative and long-range stories. Her work has won numerous national awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.
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