Twelfth Baptist Church members welcomed local politicians and others into their sanctuary Tuesday for a joyous occasion: to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Shiny trumpets and horns filled the room with hearty, upbeat music. Faces in the crowd lit up as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Mayor Marty Walsh and City Councilor Ayanna Pressley entered the room.

Still, there was a feeling of eeriness.  

Twelfth Baptist Church members and others sing a hymn during the ceremony to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and legacy.
Paris Alston/WGBH News

Fifty years ago, Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury was rocked by the news of King’s assassination — it had lost one of its own. In the early 1950s, King made Twelfth Baptist his church home in Boston while he pursued his Ph.D. at Boston University. It was where he preached frequently, and where he would become good friends with Dr. Michael E. Haynes, who served as Twelfth Baptist’s pastor for 40 years. It was the church home of the woman who introduced him to Coretta Scott, a student at the New England Conservatory of Music who would later become King’s wife. And in the days following King’s death, it was a site of mourning.

But as Twelfth Baptist’s senior pastor Arthur T. Gerald, Jr. told the crowd before him Tuesday, “You can kill the dreamer, but you can’t kill the dream.”  

Decades later, King is not only remembered for what he did during his life, but for how his legacy has inspired others. That includes Segun Idowu, a local activist and one of three vice presidents of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, who is also the son of a Twelfth Baptist minister. Idowu recited an excerpt from King’s final speech before his death, titled “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” in which King prophetically spoke about a promised land he may never — and ultimately did not — reach.

Segun Idowu, a local activist, stands near a photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Twelfth Baptist Church.
Paris Alston/WGBH News

“To do his last speech … it was different and very eerie,” Idowu said. His embodiment of King, from his mannerisms to the deep, baritone sound of his voice, resurrected the civil rights activist’s spirit. Idowu said he “felt King in, through, around … [the church].”  

“This generation is picking up where King left off,” Idowu added. “The speech was very encouraging, and I’m very happy ... King seems to be speaking to and through this generation to make America what it ought to be.”

Others who spoke during the ceremony, such as city councilor Ayanna Pressley, emphasized that the best way to honor King was by continuing to act on his blueprint, and press for equality and dignity for all people.

“Dr. King gave us the blueprint,” she said. “All we need to do is purpose our feet, dedicate our hearts, bang a drum, clang a symbol, raise our voices, build a movement.” She also reiterated the need for a monument to commemorate both MLK and Coretta Scott King’s footprints in Boston.

City Councilor Ayanna Pressley speaks during the ceremony to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life and legacy at Twelfth Baptist Church.
Paris Alston/WGBH News

The ceremony closed with Dr. Haynes, the church’s pastor emeritus, reflecting on the mark King left on him personally and on the Twelfth Baptist community. He ended his remarks by urging the crowd to act as King would want them to and led them in singing a spiritual with the refrain “put your shoulder to the wheel.”

Mark Herz contributing reporting to this story.