From King's 'I Have a Dream' to Obama Inauguration

On eve of inauguration, activists reflect on MLK's March on Washington.

January 16, 2009, 3:39 PM

Jan. 19, 2009 — -- Many civil rights leaders and prominent African-American activists who came to Washington, D.C., almost 46 years ago for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington are returning to D.C. to witness President-elect Barack Obama's historic inauguration.

Witnessing the event will be a deeply emotional experience for those who stood alongside King in his fight for civil rights, enduring brutal beatings and risking their lives in taking a stand for racial equality.

Some, like longtime civil rights activist Rev. Otis Moss Jr., helped to organize busloads of whites and blacks to travel D.C. in 1963, and stood steps from King as he delivered his famed "I Have a Dream" speech.

"Those of my generation, we will bring a special kind of memory, a special kind of fulfillment to that moment," Moss, now the senior pastor emeritus of the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, told

On Wednesday, Moss will deliver the opening prayer at the National Prayer Service, the traditional interfaith service at the Washington National Cathedral.

But tomorrow, Moss will be among the crowd of people witnessing Obama take his place in the nation's history.

"We will feel the presence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., himself, of the four little girls who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, of a Thurgood Marshall," he said. "Persons who have borne thy burdens in the heat of the day and worked sacrificially for things to come, knowing that they would perhaps not live to see the fruit of their labors but nevertheless knew that this day would come."

A quarter of a million whites, blacks and people of all races and ethnicities came to D.C. in 1963 to participate in King's massive civil rights march and hear his "I Have a Dream" speech delivered on the National Mall in the shadow of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial.

Almost 46 years later, millions of people are pouring into Washington, D.C., on the holiday celebrating King's birthday, preparing to witness firsthand Tuesday's swearing in of Obama as the nation's first black president.

Most Moving Moments of My Lifetime

"Many of the same people came here over 45 years ago for the March on Washington," Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., told ABC Radio's Ann Compton.

"Their mothers, their fathers, their grandparents came here, black and white, and they want to be here to say to Barack Obama, 'We're with you.' But also to come in the name of their forefathers and their foremothers," he said.

Lewis was instrumental in organizing student sit-ins, bus boycotts and non-violent protests in the fight for voter and racial equality.

He endured brutal beatings by angry mobs and suffered a fractured skull at the hands of Alabama State police as he led a march of 600 people in Selma, Ala. in 1965.

"It is unreal. But this is one of the most moving periods, one of the most moving moments for me in my lifetime," Lewis said.

"When he [Obama] was born, people of color couldn't register to vote in many quarters of the deep South," he said. "They had to pass a literacy test, stand in unmovable lines, some people were beaten, jailed and some were even killed."

"But look where we are," Lewis said. "Through the struggle, through the suffering, through the beatings, through the jailings, through so many deaths. We have now come the distance to elect a black man president of the United States of America."

Many of Martin Luther King Jr.'s family will also be in the crowd on Tuesday, including King's eldest and only living sibling, Christine King Farris, 81; and his daughter, Bernice King.

"We're there to be present for our parents and witness this significant milestone in American history," Bernice King told

"It gives me a great deal of joy to know that my parents were part of the movement that let this day be possible," she said.

"It's the dawning of a new day in America and represents a new beginning for African-Americans where the excuses that we have used in the past, of race as a hindrance to achievement, we cannot use anymore," King said.

On Monday the Congressional Black Caucus is hosting an interfaith religious service commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and Obama's inauguration.

Forbes: Fulfillment of 'I Have a Dream'

Rev. James Forbes of Manhattan's Riverside Church, who struggled alongside King to protest segregation, staging sit-ins at lunch counters, will lead the prayer.

Forbes said Obama's inauguration is the fulfillment of King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

"Dr. King spoke of the prospect of 'getting to the mountaintop,' which meant that the conditions of justice for poor people and people of color will be realized," Forbes told, "It feels almost as if this is the fulfillment of his prophecy."

Poet and author Maya Angelou, who became the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1960s at King's request, will be watching the inauguration on television from her home in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"I will be following every step, every nuance, every shade and shadow of the inauguration," Angelou told

"I'm there wholeheartedly, I'm just not there physically, but there is nothing holding me back except for the fact that I'm 80 and I have various medical restraints," she said.

Angelou said it is fitting that Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday will be celebrated the day before Obama's inauguration.

"It's as if the angel of time said, 'let me make this absolutely the best of times,'" she said, "To have all of the music, and all of the young people, young black boys and young white boys and young Asians saying 'I have a dream!' on the Monday, and to cinch it, fix it in just the proper way, we have the inauguration of the nation's first African-American president."

Angelou, who wrote and read an original poem for former President Bill Clinton's first inauguration in 1993, said Obama's inauguration tells us that we are growing up as a nation.

"We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism. It takes a long time. But we are growing up," she said.

One man who will be sitting in one of the front rows as Obama delivers his highly anticipated inaugural address is Tuskegee airman John Harrison Jr., of Philadelphia.

Black Pilot Returns to D.C. for Inauguration

The 88-year-old Harrison is one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, the nation's first black military pilots who fought in World War II.

Harrison and the approximately 330 living Tuskegee Airmen have been invited to sit with members of Congress and senators to witness Obama's inauguration.

Harrison, who flew a friend's plane to Washington, D.C., to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., speak almost 46 years ago, is returning to D.C. to witness Obama's inauguration, this time in a friends' car.

"I never believed that this would happen in my lifetime, and that's why I want to be there," Harrison told "There has been such a suppression of what African-Americans have contributed to this country."

Harrison said he faced racial discrimination from an armed forces sergeant when he first tried to enlist as a pilot.

"He said we don't train you people to be pilots -- and I was offering everything that I had, which was my life, to be trained as a pilot to defend my country and I was kicked in the face," he said.

After persevering and becoming a pilot, Harrison and others returned home from the war only to face more discrimination and exclusion from victory parades.

"I never thought that something like this would occur," Harrison said of Obama's inauguration, "and I think it's just wonderful."