It was a congress convened to remember a fallen leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and maybe find a new one in the bones of a young man in dreadlocks sitting on the dais.
The crowd had flocked to the BWI Airport Marriott for a dinner honoring King. But their attention also was focused on Ayinde Jean-Baptiste, the 20-year-old keynote speaker and an up-and-coming orator.
Tall and thin, Jean-Baptiste looked lost in thought as he waited for awards to be handed out to those who have worked to further King's dream of a nation where people are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
Nearly eight years ago, when he was just 13, Jean-Baptiste electrified the crowd when he delivered his own moving "dream" speech at the Million Man March in Washington.
At Wednesday's dinner in Linthicum, he raised the roof again -- this time with his steady voice and rhetorical gems imploring his listeners to protect the ideals for which King fought.
"We know that the war on poverty is a war on the poor," he said to roaring applause. "We know that the war on drugs has become a war on the drug-addicted."
Thirty-five years after King was assassinated and 17 years after his birthday was first celebrated as a national holiday, the fight for civil rights has a new face, and many blacks say it looks like Jean-Baptiste's. Although he has not sought the role and says he doesn't even know if he wants it, his supporters are holding him up as the kind of young leader the civil rights movement needs to continue the fight for equality in the 21st century.
At the dinner sponsored by the NAACP's Anne Arundel chapter and other local organizations, Carl O. Snowden, who chaired the committee that asked Jean-Baptiste to speak, described him as "America's newest and brightest hope for tomorrow." Snowden noted that King was virtually unknown at Jean-Baptiste's age.
Like King, Jean-Baptiste's gift for public speaking was evident early. An academic achiever and National Merit Scholar, he has shared the stage with former president Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, members of the King family and Rosa Parks.
Snowden, special assistant to Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens (D), said a new challenge calls for new leaders -- leaders who can navigate corporate boardrooms as deftly as King and his followers executed their protests and sit-ins.
"We have a generation of African American youth who have more opportunities than their fathers and grandfathers could have dreamed of," Snowden said. "They're better educated, and they have to be prepared to take the civil rights movement in a new direction."
After all, Snowden said, there is much work to do. He noted that many blacks have attained a comfortable level of financial and social success, in part because of victories won during the civil rights battles of the 1950s and '60s.
At the same time, many people who remember the days before King say they regret that their communities are often less closely knit than they were during the era of segregation and that poverty and crime have become entrenched in so many majority-black communities.
In the hope of inspiring the next generation of youth, organizers of the dinner invited scores of students of all ages to attend free of charge. None of the youngsters could relate to King while he lived or when he was assassinated in 1968. Few could even remember the first celebration of King's birthday in 1986.
Still, King's passionate speeches boomed over the dinner.
"He's not so much removed from me," said Marina Harrison, 21, also known as Miss Annapolis. "He's almost like an extended family member to some of us."
Mary Parker, 14, said: "I think he was a strong man. Maybe one day we could be like a leader and represent freedom. I would walk as many miles as he would want us to walk to get to the promised land."
"That's a long walk," friend Deon Queen, 12, said.
Listening to King's voice brought back memories for Annapolis City Council member Classie Hoyle, who was in the audience when King spoke to the graduates of Morgan State University in 1958.
"I was saying, 'Wow, who is this man?' because he spoke the whole speech without one note," she remembered.
Jean-Baptiste's remarks were not as refined as King's. Speaking softly and hesitantly, he seemed almost frightened to take up the heavy burden of his listeners' hopes.
"We have to take care that the war on terror does not become a war on those who are already terrorized," said Jean-Baptiste, who studies African American studies at Northwestern University. "It is our task to make of this old world a new world."
Later, as he reflected on suggestions that he might one day serve as a successor to King and others who have fought for civil rights, Jean-Baptiste cautioned against anointing a new leader.
"Maybe a next great black leader may not be exactly what we need right now, and it's also a bit too much pressure to put on individuals," he said. "Some of the people we remember were people who were thrust to the forefront by events, but I doubt they set out to become what we remember them as."
In fact, said Jean-Baptiste, "Real change comes from a whole lot of ordinary people. I'm just trying to do my part."