Many see Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of equality becoming reality

Forty-six years ago the pastor spoke in capital.

01/21/2009 2:14 AM

01/21/2009 2:17 AM

WASHINGTON -- If the scene at the National Mall was an indication, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream, for one day at least, became a reality.

Nearly 46 years ago, during the March on Washington, King spoke about a day when people of all races, religions and nationalities would stand together equally.

On Tuesday, nearly 2 million Americans of all backgrounds came together, putting the baggage of the past aside, and not only stood together, but hugged, held hands and cried on each other's shoulders as President Barack Obama took the oath of office.

"We know today that Dr. King and a great cloud of witnesses are shouting in heaven," pastor Rick Warren said in the invocation.

Ben Shelly, the 65-year-old vice president of the Navajo Nation, called it "a great day for America." He was struck, he said, by how comfortable he felt surrounded by so many people he did not know.

He felt, he said, as though they had a common bond.

"It's about time for this to happen. It's about time America grew up," said Shelly, who with his wife, Martha, 63, traveled from Thoreau, N.M. "Today makes me think that in eight years, it could be one of us, a Native American, up there." Seated near them, Kelly Hall-Tompkins, 37, and her husband Joseph Tompkins, 39, both of New York, absorbed the moment. There was a time in America that it would have been illegal for the Tompkins to marry in some states. She is black and he is white. The couple agreed that Obama's inauguration was an indication of how far the country has come.

"This is an enormous down payment on Dr. King's dream," said Hall-Tompkins. "Obama was able to bring all groups together, and not everybody can do that. He has brought out the angels in all of us. I have hugged more strangers than any time in my life."

They worked on Obama's presidential campaign, which according to Joseph Tompkins, was the beginning of an effort to help people of different backgrounds understand each other.

"We overcame something as a nation," said Tompkins. "And now, as a nation, we have overcome something else. Throughout history, we have only had old, white men as presidents. Today, we stepped over that barrier and it's a good thing for America." Rev. Jesse Jackson, a civil rights veteran who attended the March on Washington, looked down from the west front of the Capitol to the sea of people stretching across the Mall, past the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial and thought of that day in 1963 when more than 250,000 people gathered to rally for jobs and freedom.

The March on Washington was a day that has been etched in history, as will the swearing in of the first black president, civil rights leaders have said.

"It is a level of unspeakable joy," Jackson said of the inauguration. "For the civil rights veterans, it is a joy of achievement . . . for President Obama, it's a joy of accomplishment."

Through the weekend and into Monday, the King holiday melded with the inauguration ceremony, as people came to Washington to celebrate both.

References to the civil rights struggles were sprinkled throughout the inauguration. President Obama, the son of an African man and a white woman, spoke of how different life in America was for his father's generation and how it is for him today.

"This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed -- why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath," said Obama. "So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled."

Charlotte Durante, 64, of Delray Beach, Fla., stepped across the soft ground of the Mall with a walker. She remembered being in Montgomery, Ala., in 1965 when civil rights marchers made it from Selma to Montgomery.

"This walker is nothing compared to what people went through in the civil rights era," Durante said. "I grew up in Alabama -- segregated classrooms, segregated bathrooms. We even had to use the back door to go into some businesses.

"I was part of the movement to work toward this day. I am just in awe at the people of all races here," she said. "It makes my heart flutter." For her husband Kenneth Durante, Obama's inauguration was beyond the expectations he had in the 1960s, when he participated in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Fayette County, N.C.

"This was something we worked for," Charlotte Durante said.

"But we weren't thinking a black president. We were just working to sit at the lunch counter." Jack Scott, 75, a former state senator from California, said Obama's speech brought back memories of his own journey toward realizing the importance of racial equality in America.

"I was born in Texas and I saw the segregated water fountains and other signs of discrimination. And I remember the point in my own life when I realized it was wrong," said Scott. "But if you remember your faith in America, you can say that this day can happen. We are moving in the right direction."

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