When the nation’s first African-American president takes the public oath of office for his second term on Monday, he will do it on the national holiday devoted to the country’s greatest civil rights dreamer, the Rev. Martin Luther King.
Barack Obama, the Illinois transplant and renowned orator, will be powerfully aware that he is expected to reach an exceptionally high bar with his inaugural address. Perhaps the greatest speech ever delivered by Abraham Lincoln, another Illinois president he reveres, was his “With Malice Toward None” Second Inaugural Address now immortalized on a wall of the Lincoln Memorial.
At the intersection of those great American voices from the past, Obama will place his hand on Bibles belonging to both Lincoln and King to solemnly swear to defend the Constitution.
“The country has seen his first four years,” said the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, the 91-year-old King colleague who delivered a colorful inaugural benediction four years ago. “He’s served under the most trying circumstances, and he’s served well. I’m so proud of him I don’t know what to do.”
Though not well, Lowery said he plans to be in the crowd to “enjoy God’s grace” on Monday and that “the president has promised to provide me good seats.” He said the coincidence of the inauguration with the King national holiday is “historic” because Obama “epitomizes what Martin Luther King stood for.”
Johnnie R. Turner was at the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington as a freshly minted graduate from historically black LeMoyne Owen College in Memphis, Tenn. She returned for anniversaries in 1983, 1993, 2003 and will return in August, “the good Lord willing.” Now a state representative from Tennessee, she attended Obama’s 2009 inauguration and will be on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol on Monday.
“Much remains to be done,” said Turner, 72, who was also present for King’s last, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis the night before he was killed. Of the coincidence of the inauguration of a re-elected black president on the King holiday, she said, “Can you think of a more perfect symbolism?”
For Michael K. Honey, a University of Washington-Tacoma historian of the civil rights era and an expert on King’s speeches, Obama’s first inauguration was a celebration of the “fulfillment of the first phase” of the civil rights movement. That phase “was full civil rights and voting rights; and I think people will celebrate that again.”
The second phase, which Honey said was King’s hope for “social and economic and racial justice” achieved through equal opportunity, still appears to be a far-off goal. In a political culture tied so much to money, phase two “doesn’t even seem to be on the horizon,” he said.
Honey blames both political parties for being unwilling to “come to grips with the inequalities of American capitalism,” as King did in calling for a moral revolution and a Poor People’s March on Washington before he was shot in Memphis in 1968.
Much of the still-living civil rights-era royalty who made the trip in 2009 will return, including King lieutenant Jesse L. Jackson Sr., 71. But 50 years after the historic March on Washington, some are gone. Former NAACP national director Benjamin L. Hooks, who celebrated the milestone in 2009, died the following year.
Rep. John R. Lewis of Georgia, 72, who worked with King, will be on hand. He said before the 2009 inauguration that King had taught him to live “a life of service.” He said the national Martin Luther King Jr. Day should be treated not as “a day off” but rather as “a day on.”
The resonance of the King holiday takes on particular significance during this 50th anniversary of the “Dream” speech. Besides the inauguration, it’s being commemorated in various places, including Atlanta, where new citizens were to be naturalized Friday at Freedom Hall in the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
Many coming to the inauguration will visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, which was dedicated in 2011. Four busloads organized by Regina Osei of Memphis — which she calls “The Witness to History Tour” — will visit the massive granite likeness on the National Mall on Sunday morning before heading to Monday’s festivities.
At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, president Beverly Robertson said visitors can watch the televised inauguration from tents in the parking lot of the Lorraine Motel, where King was felled.
“It almost reflects a 360-degree revolution, because we are now going from the prophet, who was King, to the president,” said Robertson. “Dr. King talked about this day. He did say, ‘I may not get there with you but … we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.’
“In many ways, in the highest office of the land, we have a representative right there,” she added. “So King talked about his dream, but Barack represents the manifestation of that dream.”