As he looked across a room filled with civil rights veterans, White House officials and leaders from corporate America, Martin Luther King III said that the issues his father championed and died for have yet to be fulfilled in many communities across the country.
“My heart is heavy today! A people who do not remember their history are doomed to repeat their mistakes,” said King, who spoke at a luncheon in the District, sponsored by the National Action Network, that was held on what would have been his father’s 84th birthday.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, the group’s president, hosted events in Washington and New York on Tuesday in honor of the slain civil rights leader, but he told community leaders to beware of reducing King’s legacy to the commemorative events held around his birthday.
“Martin Luther King can’t be reduced to a ceremony,” Sharpton said.
Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, said that even though President Obama fought hard to pass the Affordable Care Act, the White House effort will have been in vain if people don’t know what laws are on the books. “I need your help to get the information out there so that people can take advantage of the full benefits.”
Education Secretary Arne Duncan struck a more somber tone as he talked about the school shootings in Newtown, Conn.
“We have more of our babies being killed than police officers in the line of duty. . . . We have to create a climate where our children are fed, they are cared for and they feel safe.”
Rosalind Brewer, president and chief executive of Sam’s Club, who received the MLK Day Merit Award, told the gathering that it is time for corporate America to fulfill its part of the King dream — and that it will start with her company.
“We are committed to providing $300 million a year for food programs and 100,000 jobs to veterans,” said Brewer, one of five corporate executives honored at the luncheon.
Brewer is the first African American to become a chief executive of one of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s business units.
King said that while 2013 is a “monumental” year in this country — from the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to the 45th anniversary of King’s Poor People’s Campaign seeking economic justice — there are also sober reminders of unfinished aspects of his father’s dream.
“Forty-five years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was saying we want a living, and 45 years later, we are still debating the living wage,” said King, adding that the time has come for people of all races and political views to come together.
“On Monday, when we observe the official holiday and the president is sworn in, it is my hope that we understand — specifically, the Congress — that we must work together to ensure that the president’s vision will become a reality for Americans.
“Not for an American, but Americans.”