At Shiloh Baptist Church Sunday, some felt a lump gather in their throats as they sang, "We shall overcome, some day." Tears fell at Metropolitan AME Church as the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr. wove his sermon around the probing refrain, "Why does a caged bird sing?" As Mayor Marion Barry spoke at the Washington Convention Center, hands flew up and cut through the air, bearing witness to the joy of battles won.
Afterward, there was talk of the road that has been traveled. Jim Crow is dead. Shouts of "Nigger, go home" don't ring like an anthem anymore. "Whites only" signs long have been torn down. Blacks hold positions of power, even knocking on the door of the White House.
Still, among dozens interviewed who during the past two days attended activities marking the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., there was fear that the dream is endangered.
For many, it was hard to bear witness to the past without the bittersweet knowledge that still more battles lie ahead before King's dream is reality:
Too many people need jobs. Racial insensitivity and outright racial hate remain very much alive. While the vote is a right that has been fought for and won, political clout has not followed to the degree that some feel it should. And for too many young people, King's legacy is too much an unknown.
Lillette Campbell, 38, is a mother and director of a private elementary school on Georgia Avenue NW. Her husband, James Campbell, 51, is an engineer. At a tribute to King held Sunday night at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library, they sat among hundreds of others who had reason to bask in the gains they have made in large part because of King's struggle.
But listen to Lillette Campbell: "Some of the things that were going on back then are still going on now. Sometimes I wonder what was accomplished. For instance, listen to what Jimmy the Greek said a few days ago . . . . You have to be aware. You just can't let your guard down. It's a shame.
"It feels great that there's recognition for what we have accomplished, but we've still got a long way to go."
Alice Holman, a housewife who helps out with her daughter's law practice, was one of Campbell's table companions at the black tie-optional affair. There is racial pride about having the King holiday, Holman said, "But there are still a lot of people that don't recognize it as an American holiday. They think it's a black holiday."
For many, a special part of the King legacy lives on in Rosa Parks. The unassuming and soft-spoken woman, called the "mother of the civil rights movement," is 74 now. She was first put off a bus in 1943, for not keeping her "proper" place as a black in Jim Crow America. Her refusal to give up her seat on a bus in 1955 touched off the Montgomery bus boycott that helped galvanize the movement and catapulted the young King into national recognition as a civil rights leader.
The struggle is with her still. "We have to go until all the injustice, and violence, all the negative things that keep us from being a strong nation, are ended," she said Sunday night at the King library, where she and several others were honored.
In some places yesterday, bridges were being built over the gullies where racial antagonism has been rooted. At the Lincoln Memorial, below the inscription of the Gettysburg Address, King's voice bellowed out of a tape player.
A large group of high school students, most of them white, from places such as Miami, Atlanta and St. Louis, gathered to listen. Some made wisecracks as they listened to King speak of his dream, but most read along with printed copies of the speech. One of the organizers of their trip to Washington played the tape for them as an educational experience.
"I think what he stood for is really important, especially then, and right now," Angela Cortines, 17, of Miami, said afterward.
Clara Cabal, also a 17-year-old Miamian, said King's message was especially important to her because she wants to join the Peace Corps: "I think he was a wonderful man who did a terrific service, but I think some of our generation take it for granted."
At Shiloh, Pearlie Draughn, 43, sat in the packed balcony, near the youth choir that her daughter, Kendra, 15, sings in. The Rev. Ronald K. Austin exhorted the congregation to follow King's example of love, remembering the biblical passage, "Here am I, send me." At one point, Pearlie Draughn wiped tears from her face.
Afterward, she marveled at King's willingness to spend so much time away from his family and to go to jail for his beliefs: "It must be great for a person to step forward and do that. It gives you a lot to think about when people will stop and do that for you and for people in general. That was real tough, but people kept going. If you think about it, it's something that our kids should never forget."
Heavy on the minds of many were those young black men who speakers said were slowly being drained away by crime, drugs, prison and death.
"If we all had loved them more and all had reached out to them more and all had shared with them more, the majority would not be there," Barry said, addressing a large and racially mixed crowd at the Convention Center. "We must do something, my friends, to turn this around. Otherwise we're not going to be able to save the black family because there won't be any men around to to make up a family."
King's legacy may live on, but "if our young people are too high to appreciate it and understand it, all is lost," Barry said.
A small group gathered in a doorway after Barry's speech, discussing the state of King's dream.
"Our being here right now is concrete evidence that the dream is still alive," said Martin Chivis, 35, an assistant vice president of a bank. "We're doing pretty good right now considering what we've been up against for the past 400 years."
Lisa Lawton, 22, a recent college graduate, said blacks should take more advantage of the resources available to them to reach down and help those in need. "We become passive because we reap the benefits that people have died for . . . . We have to utilize the resources that we have and get people that are committed to start making a difference," she said.
Among the hundreds who attended an interdenominational service at Metropolitan AME Church Sunday were two girls, both 12, of the Sikh religion. They were seated high in the balcony, surrounded by empty seats. They respect King, they said, because the sting of bigotry is not foreign to them.
"We're also not Americans ourselves. We're not whites ourselves," said Mona Dhillon. The boys of her faith, she said, sometimes are ridiculed because of their long hair. "I know people who've gone through people calling them names."
Below, in the pulpit, Hicks, pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Shaw, paced, wiped his brow and continued hammering away. "Why does the caged bird sing?
"King has been buried, but racism has been resurrected . . . . If I were a bird, I'd want to let you know you can cage my body but you can't cage my spirit."
The audience stood and began to sing: "We shall overcome, We shall overcome . . . . " No one gave the word; it seemed almost natural: They reached for each others' hands, formed a chain, swayed in unison and continued the song:
"Deep in my heart, I do believe. We shall overcome, some day."