Members and visitors of Roxbury’s Twelfth Baptist Church celebrated the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Sunday, a week before the official federal holiday and three days before his birthday on Wednesday. The annual tribute, filled with scripture, songs and speeches, is meant to mark King’s connection to the church and to the city.

“He’s part of Boston history, and sometimes that gets forgotten,” Minister Rachel Idowu told WGBH News. Idowu, a member of the church for several decades, said that the Roxbury institution, formerly located on Shawmut Avenue, is where the young King preached. He eventually met his wife, Coretta Scott, at the church while attending school in Boston. The convocation event was established after the civil rights giant’s assassination in 1968.

“Following his untimely death, this church knew that we had to do something to continue his memory and to work and encourage the legacy that he left,” Idowu said. “So, it’s something that we as a church want to make sure we continue to make his memory and legacy known.”

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Members and visitors of the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury on Jan. 12, 2020.
Saraya Wintersmith WGBH News

Dozens filled the pews over the three-hour event as several orators pointed to persisting racial discrepancies in areas like criminal justice and economics. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said the nation is facing a new moment of fierce urgency.

“Now is the time to keep Dr. King’s message in our hearts. In Washington, America’s leadership has lost its way,” Walsh said, reminding attendees to register to vote. “As I always say, Boston is not perfect. We have a lot of work to do, but we have to rebuild America’s moral compass, and we have an opportunity in Boston to lead that change.”

The evening’s keynote came from Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins, who said people of color are disproportionately represented inside Suffolk County’s House of Correction when compared to the state’s population.

“I lay that injustice at the doorstep of racism and inequality,” said the sheriff. Tompkins pointed to the city’s Council, police commissioner and other political leaders of color, and said in Boston, change is “arriving.”

Boston City Council President Kim Janey received the church’s MLK Leadership Award, and gave remarks about economic equity being part of King’s legacy.

“He understood it was not enough to integrate that lunch counter if we could not afford to eat at that lunch counter,” Janey said to applause. “We have an economic justice agenda here in Boston. We have to ensure that we can all benefit from being in this wonderful, great city that we call home.”

Former state Rep. Marie St. Fleur also gave the audience an update regarding the effort to break ground on a memorial to Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King on the Boston Common this summer.
St. Fleur heads King Boston, the nonprofit group working to create the memorial.

Attendee Sharona Halpern said she has been attending the church’s Martin Luther King Jr. convocation for the last 10 years.

“I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday," she said, "than to be here at the church in Roxbury where he spoke.”

The official Martin Luther King holiday is on Jan. 20.