Where King Preached, Obama's the Word

The dean of Washington National Cathedral calls it "one of those grace notes of history" — the confluence, today and Tuesday, of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Barack Obama's Inauguration Day.

Obama told USA TODAY last week he wasn't sure exactly how King's words would be reflected in his own speech Tuesday "because I'm such a student of his speeches and his writings that they're probably burned into my consciousness." But, he added, "certainly my presence is gonna reflect him, because if it weren't for him, I wouldn't be standing there."

The pairing of King Day and Inauguration Day -- when the nation's first African-American president will look across the National Mall to where King in 1963 declared, "I have a dream!" -- raises a question: Is Obama the fulfillment of King's dream? And what, exactly, was that dream?

On Sunday, USA TODAY reporters visited four churches where King gave Sunday sermons in March 1968, during the last month of his life. They range from his home pulpit, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, to a converted movie theater in Harlem to the grand National Cathedral.

Preachers and congregants said King would be gratified by Obama's inauguration — but not satisfied. "He'd say this is a great moment to celebrate, but we ought to hold the new president's feet to the fire," said Samuel T. Lloyd III, dean of the National Cathedral.

Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist and a student of King's life, agreed.

"We will have to push him in the same way we must push any president to do the right thing, the way Martin had to push Lyndon Johnson" to pass civil and voting rights laws in the mid-'60s, he said.

In the congregation at Ebenezer was Ronald White, a Detroit minister. "I don't think most people have a good understanding of what Martin Luther King was really about," he said. "But I think that this younger generation, because of Obama, is starting to learn."

That message also was celebrated Sunday at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington — where the worshippers included Obama and his family.

At this feel-good moment in American history, King's last month offers a reminder of how heartbreaking politics can be for anyone with a conviction — or a dream.

At times he seemed to be preaching to himself in these sermons: "Unfulfilled Dreams" on March 3, 1968, at Ebenezer; "The Meaning of Hope" on March 17 at Holman United Methodist in Los Angeles; "A Knock at Midnight" on March 24 at Canaan Baptist in New York City's Harlem section; "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution" on March 31 at the National Cathedral.

In New York, King concluded with a melancholy refrain: "He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone, no, never alone, no, never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone."

And in Atlanta, he said: "You don't need to go out this morning and say that Martin Luther King is a saint. Oh no. I want you to know this morning that I am a sinner like all of God's children."

King hoped God would comfort him, as he had King David, by saying: "It is well that it is within thy heart. It's well that you are trying. You may not see it. The dream may not be fulfilled, but … thank God this morning that we do have hearts to put something meaningful in."

The King of March 1968 is more than a man with a dream who had given a big speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. This King had tried to move his movement beyond race and civil rights.

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