ATLANTA » One of the sons of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. said Saturday evening that the Arizona shootings that claimed six lives and left a congresswoman critically wounded show his father’s work must continue.
"Ugliness rears its head," Martin Luther King III told a dinner gathering hosted by the King Center. "And that tragic incident in a real sense should say to us all that the work of Martin Luther King Jr. is nowhere near finished because he tried to teach us how to live in a nation and world without destroying either person or property."
"And so the message of nonviolence resonates strongly, particularly this year after that great tragedy," King said.
King III spoke at a King Center tribute to the late Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, honoring his work on civil rights. A posthumous award was presented to the senator’s widow, Vicki Kennedy. The senator died at age 77 in 2009, after battling brain cancer.
"Edward Kennedy’s maiden speech as a young United States senator was a demand to make real the ideal of America and secure the civil rights of every American," his wife told the crowd. "And nearly a half-century later, the last speech of his life was the call to complete the journey."
Although the dinner was a celebration, King’s children and sister were mindful of the Jan. 8 assassination attempt on Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who is recovering from a gunshot to the head.
Both the Kennedy and King families have been seared by political violence. President John Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, and King and Sen. Robert Kennedy were slain months apart in 1968.
"We have always felt that we shared a sense of destiny," said Andrew Young, a former Atlanta mayor who marched alongside King, speaking of the ties between King’s movement and the Kennedys.
If they shared a destiny, it was sometimes tense. Civil rights leaders were frustrated that the Kennedy administration did not move faster on the issue, and as attorney general, Robert Kennedy authorized the wiretapping of King.
Congress passed landmark civil rights legislation following President Kennedy’s assassination, and both Robert Kennedy and King championed liberal causes over the next four years. After King was shot dead on April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy broke the news of his death to a mostly black crowd while campaigning for president in Indianapolis. He quoted the Greek tragedian Aeschylus.
"Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until," Kennedy said, "in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
Edward and Robert Kennedy attended King’s funeral in Atlanta. Two months later, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles after winning the California primary.
King’s followers found in Edward Kennedy an ally.
"My brother was the first president of the United States to state publicly that segregation was wrong," a 32-year-old Edward Kennedy said on the Senate floor as the chamber considered the Civil Rights Act of 1964. "His heart and soul are in this bill. If his life and death had a meaning, it was that we should not hate but love one another; we should use our powers not to create conditions of oppression that lead to violence, but conditions of freedom that lead to peace."
A friend of Coretta Scott King, Edward Kennedy sponsored legislation that made King’s birthday a national holiday. He joined the King family in Atlanta for the first King Day celebration in 1986. Speakers on Saturday noted that Edward Kennedy supported sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa, backed expanding access to health care and endorsed Barack Obama, who became the first black man elected president.
King was a hero to Kennedy, his wife said.
"On this day, let us rededicate ourselves to what is best in our country," she said. "Surely we know it when we live it, as these two men lived not just for themselves, but for others. One of them told us, ‘I have a dream.’ The other affirmed, ‘The dream shall never die."’