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MLK Jr. holiday celebrations include acts of service and parades, but some take a political turn

ATLANTA (AP) — Communities across the nation celebrated the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday with acts of service, prayer services and parades. But with the November presidential election as a backdrop, some events took on an overtly political turn.

In King's hometown of Atlanta, several speakers at the 56th annual commemorative service at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King served as pastor, touched on the divisive partisan climate in the United States.

Former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, who served on the House committee that investigated the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol, had harsh words for Trump, whom she did not mention by name. On that day, Trump's supporters tried to block Congress from counting the Electoral College votes that would affirm Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 presidential race.

“A former president refuses to acknowledge that he lost, and he has convinced millions that our elections and our democracy no longer work,” she said. “He threatens the foundations of our nation and everything Dr. King persevered to save.”

She also criticized some religious leaders in the way they seemed to worship Trump, not God.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, the longtime senior pastor of Ebenezer, told the audience, “You better stand up and vote!” to rousing applause. “If your vote didn’t count, why are folks trying so hard to keep you from voting? Stand and use your voice. Stand up and use your vote. Speak up!”

Bernice King, the daughter of the late civil rights leader, warned that “our humanity is literally under attack.” But she noted that her father’s legacy of nonviolence taught the world that “we can defeat injustice, ignorance and hold people accountable at the same time without seeking to destroy, diminish, demean or cancel them.”

Speaking at the MLK Day at the Dome rally at the South Carolina Statehouse, Vice President Kamala Harris said young people two or three generations removed from King have seen their freedoms shrink — from laws restricting voting to bans on abortions and the ever-present threat of gun violence, especially in schools.

“They even try to erase, overlook and rewrite the ugly parts of our past. For example, the Civil War — which must I really have to say was about slavery?” Harris said.

Harris also used her speech at the event — which started in 2000 to pressure the state to remove the Confederate flag from atop the Capitol dome — to urge the younger generation to regain those rights lost through voting and action.

“Generation after generation on the fields of Gettysburg, in the schools of Little Rock, on the grounds of this Statehouse, on the streets of Ferguson and on the floor of the Tennessee House of Representatives — we the people have always fought to make the promise of freedom real,” Harris said.

In Philadelphia, President Joe Biden marked Martin Luther King Jr. Day by volunteering at Philabundance, a nonprofit food bank. He stuffed donation boxes with apples and struck up casual chatter with workers at the organization, where he volunteered for the third time as president or president-elect to mark the January day of service.

The 29th annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service is billed as the first and largest King day of service in the nation. Volunteer activities included preparing care packages for victims of gun violence and distributing voter information packets.

Also in the city, the Philadelphia MLK Association held its annual tapping of the Liberty Bell on Independence Mall, and the National Constitution Center offered free admission with a slate of civil rights era events and a school supply drive.

In Washington, Martin Luther King III participated in a wreath-laying event at his father’s memorial.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers, at a noontime ceremony in the state Capitol rotunda, said the holiday is an opportunity to recommit to addressing health disparities, fully funding public schools and providing affordable housing, child care and transportation.

Doing that “we can build the sort of future we all want to see for our state,” the Democratic former educator said.

In Los Angeles, thousands gathered for the annual Kingdom Day Parade, with the theme “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, Going to the Promised Land.” LA Mayor Karen Bass urged Angelenos to honor King's legacy by taking care of vulnerable communities, including the homeless.

“The inequality is staggering, with more than 70% of unhoused Angelenos being people of color. While we celebrate the legacy of Dr. King today, we must recommit to confronting this crisis of our time," Bass said in a statement.

Meanwhile, a dangerously cold winter storm was limiting some planned activities. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis announced that it would be closed on Monday because of icy roads but would still hold a virtual celebration in honor of King’s birthday. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee-North Carolina border was also closed, canceling a campground cleanup event.

Also canceled because of weather was the Martin Luther King Gymnastics Invitational set for Monday at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

The historic meet was to include Fisk, Brown, Iowa State, Rutgers, Talladega (Ala.) and William & Mary. The competition aimed to feature the only African American women head coaches in the sport for the first time ever.

Observed federally since 1986, the holiday occurs on the third Monday of January, which this year happens to be King’s actual birthday. Born in 1929, the slain civil rights leader would have been 95. This year also marks the 60th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act and King’s Nobel Peace Prize.

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Collins reported from Columbia, S.C. Associated Press journalists Seung Min Kim in Philadelphia, Michael Casey in Boston, Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed.