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.
Against the advice of some of his closest advisers, King had condemned the Vietnam War, and in the process alienated President Johnson, who'd done more for African Americans than any president since Lincoln.
Also against the wishes of many supporters, King was planning a "Poor People's March on Washington." By that March, King's dream had left him sleepless, lonely, depressed and discouraged, according to several biographers, including David Garrow, author of Bearing the Cross.
Many critics felt that his movement was out of focus and out of steam, and that his notion of non-violent change had been discredited by urban riots and black militancy, Garrow said. "It was a terrible time for him. He was phenomenally exhausted. He'd carried on a presidential campaign pace for 15 years."
King also was pessimistic about the direction of the nation and haunted by fear of failure, Garrow said. When he was assassinated April 4 in Memphis, some viewed it less as a premature end than a merciful release.
"I was almost strangely relieved when Martin died," his aide, Andrew Young, said later. "This was the only way he could know peace." King counselor Chauncey Eskridge told Garrow that "Andy and I said that maybe this was the best thing, because he'd run out of things to do."
Four decades later, here's what happened Sunday in the four churches where King preached:
Atlanta: Ebenezer Baptist
Raphael Warnock grew up hearing about King, studying him, trying to emulate him.
On Sunday, speaking as King's successor as senior pastor at "America's Freedom Church," he drew a historical line from the biblical figure of Joseph to King to Obama — all dreamers, he said, who saw something better for their people.
Warnock called his sermon Dreams from our Fathers, a variation on Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father.
Warnock told a racially diverse congregation that Obama "would not be possible were it not for one who dared to challenge the conscience of a nation with four simple words: 'I have a dream.' "
With the congregation's fervor rising on each name, Warnock listed others on whose shoulders Obama stands, from "Jewish immigrants who came through the Holocaust and said, 'Never again,' " to slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, "who died in his driveway fighting for freedom."
He added a caution: "Joseph was a dreamer. And so his brothers tried to kill him. And don't you know that that's what we do to dreamers. We try to destroy dreamers, lest dreamers destroy the status quo. We love dreamers after they are dead. But while they are alive we try to destroy them."
And yet: "Come Tuesday, we will have sitting in the Oval Office a dreamer-in-chief," he said. "It's been a looong time coming, but I know — not because Sam Cooke said it, but because God said it — I know a change is gonna come."
The congregation closed by singing We Shall Overcome.
"Most people probably weren't like Martin Luther King Jr. during his time. They didn't believe his dream could come true," said Jonathan Boykin, whose family drove from Tennessee for the service. His sister Kandi said King "would be proud of the progress we've made. At the same time, he would remind us that there's still a lot of work to be done."
Los Angeles: Holman United Methodist
"Who is Number 44?" pastor Leonardo Wilborn asked at the start of the service.
"Barack Obama!" the congregation shouted in unison.
"Amen," the preacher replied.
The cover of the church bulletin featured a combined photo of King and Obama with the words "A Legacy of Hope."
Two lines of boys stood at the front, each with a microphone. One by one, boys from both lines stepped forward, first to recite a line from King, then one from Obama, like this:
King: "Know that we will be free one day."
Obama: "There is not a black America, there is not a white America, there is not a Latino America, there is not an Asian America. There is the United States of America."
Wilborn called his sermon How to Pick a Dream Team, and he called King and Obama "a true dream team … the dreamer and the dream realized with a new dreamer." His conclusion: "We are all on the dream team now."
Several church members recalled King's visit there in 1968. Bennie Reams, a septuagenarian family therapist, said King made a connection — "he looked you in the face and he talked with you." She recalled the sun streaming onto King's face as he preached: "I kept thinking that he looks so radiant."
What would King think of Obama's inauguration?
"His dream has been realized," Reams said. "But he would also caution us, it's not completed. This is the beginning of the change. We all have got to work to make this dream a reality."
Mildred Cox was in the choir that day. "Greatest thing I ever saw," she said. "He would move you, just looking at him."
What would King think now? "He knew this was coming on. He had a dream. And it's here."
New York: Canaan Baptist
They called it Martin Luther King Sunday; a big black-and-white portrait of him sat at the base of the pulpit. But in sermon, prayer, and song, the memory of King repeatedly was linked to the promise of Obama.
"Two days after we commemorate the birthday of this 20th-century prophet, the world will come to a standstill," said Thomas Johnson, the senior pastor. "This is the answer to the prayers of so many who fought and died for such a day."
King came to the church in 1968 to install Wyatt Tee Walker, his former chief of staff, as pastor. Louise Gadson, 75, was there, singing in the choir. She recalled King walking through the door behind the pulpit. She couldn't remember his exact words, only what it was like to be near him.
"It was a hallelujah day," she said. "And to hear him speak: He encouraged us to fight on. And he also talked about his dream. … And he mentioned to us that he was going to Memphis." Long before dawn Tuesday, she will get on a bus going to Washington.
Johnnie Davis also was at the church that day, helping with security for King: "He shook my hand. I felt so good, I didn't wash my hand for a whole week. It was like meeting a prophet."
Davis said that if King were alive — he would have been 80 on Thursday — he would be glad for Obama's success, but not for the inequities that remain. As it is, Davis said, "He won't feel rested until equality has come."
David Hodges spent his childhood in Atlanta, where his father and King's were friends. Now he's worried the bar may be set too high for Obama, particularly by other African Americans, and that despite all the self-congratulatory rhetoric, much of King's dream — no violence, no poverty, no racism — remains just that.
But, he added: "What the election showed is that there's goodwill. … Even the most skeptical of black people cannot get away from the fact that blacks and whites alike, when they did not have to do so, cast their votes for this black man. That's something that nobody can deny."
Washington: National Cathedral
Here, King delivered his last Sunday sermon. He made the most of it.
Speaking from an ornate high pulpit made of white stone from Canterbury Cathedral in England, King reiterated his opposition to the Vietnam War ("one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world") and his determination to lead the Poor People's March on Washington (which took place after King's death).
On Sunday, Lloyd, the cathedral's dean, described King as "the figure looming in the midst of what's happening" this week in Washington. King Day and Inauguration Day "seem inextricably intertwined," he said.
He told his congregation — predominantly white, like the one King addressed 41 years ago — that just as Franklin Roosevelt promised a New Deal and John Kennedy a New Frontier, Obama seemed to offer "a new community." That, he said, may explain why, at such a bleak economic time, "we Americans are experiencing a strange sense of hope."
In 1968, five days before his death, King concluded his sermon at the cathedral with words that have been echoed recently by Obama: "We have difficult days ahead in the struggle for justice and peace, but I will not yield to a politic of despair. I'm going to maintain hope as we come to Washington."
Hampson reported from Washington; Copeland from Atlanta; Jones from New York; Welch from Los Angeles.