By Martin Luther King III
Monday, January 19, 2009
Forty-five years ago, my father, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., proclaimed his dream for America "that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed."
His words, spoken in Lincoln's shadow on Aug. 28, 1963, will echo profoundly on Jan. 20, 2009. The ideals that Abraham Lincoln and my father championed will advance when Barack Obama takes the presidential oath of office.
In the years since that march on Washington, our nation has come much farther than the two miles that separate the Lincoln Memorial from the Capitol. Martin Luther King Jr. would be extraordinarily proud of Mr. Obama for becoming the nation's first black president. Perhaps more important, he would be proud of the America that elected him.
As I watched events unfold on Election Day at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta -- where my father was co-pastor -- I was overcome not only by the jubilation that enveloped the church but also by a deep sense of pride and triumph. Of course I shared in what felt like a national catharsis. But for me, Mr. Obama's victory was intensely personal.
I was 10 years old when my father was assassinated. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life to break down barriers in our country's struggle for equality. He gave his life fighting to give all of us a chance to realize his dream.
On the dawn of this historic inauguration, I have reflected on the times that my father and I were able to share together. Even as a child, I knew that he was doing something big, though I was not quite sure of the magnitude. I've remembered the time I was teased by classmates who called my father a "jailbird." When I came home from school in tears, my mother told me that "your father goes to jail to make the world a better place for all God's children." I went back to school with a new sense of pride.
I've thought about the amusement park I so desperately wanted to go to but couldn't because of segregation. My father assured me that one day I'd be able to. I quantified success like any young boy; I knew my father's work must be bettering the world if it would eventually allow me to ride the bumper cars.
In the days since Mr. Obama's election, I have often been asked whether I thought I would live to see a black man become president. My answer -- yes -- often surprises. But if my father were alive today, he would answer the same way. Without that faith and that sense of possibility, he would have had no reason to fight in the first place.
As bright a day as Nov. 4 was in our nation's history, it is important to remember that Barack Obama's election is not a panacea for race relations in this country. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, yet segregation ran rampant for a hundred years. Blacks were given the right to vote in 1965, but it took 43 years for an African American to rise to the nation's highest office. Though it carries us further down the path toward equality, Barack Obama's election does not render my father's dream realized.
Mr. Obama will have the opportunity and the duty to pick up the mantle of Abraham Lincoln, of Lyndon Johnson, of Bobby Kennedy -- and of Martin Luther King Jr. Yet this duty is not Obama's alone. We must all embrace this dream as our civic responsibility. For it to function effectively, we must all take an active role in our democracy and champion the cause that is the common good.
I have dedicated my adult life to continuing my father's work and to perpetuating his legacy. In five years, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington will be upon us. As we prepare to celebrate a new page in American history tomorrow, let us pledge to reduce the poverty rate 20 percent by the time that milestone arrives.
Let us promote community building by funding programs that promote service to our most impoverished regions and let us embrace nonviolent resolutions to all conflicts, domestic and international.
I have faith that the American people and the leadership of President Obama will usher in the day when all of us -- black and white, rich and poor, young and old -- stand together and work to realize my father's dream.
The writer is president and CEO of the nonprofit group Realizing the Dream.