ATLANTA — Commemorative events for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. slid seamlessly into celebrations of a second swearing-in Monday for the nation’s first black president, with many Americans moved by the reminder of how far the country has come since the 1960s.
“This is the dream that Dr. King talked about in his speech. We see history in the making,” said Joyce Oliver, who observed the holiday by visiting the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., built on the site of the Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated in 1968.
In Atlanta, at the 45th annual service for the civil rights leader at the church where he was pastor, those gathered in the sanctuary were invited to stay to watch President Obama’s second inauguration on a big-screen TV.
As the nearly three-hour service came to a close at Ebenezer Baptist Church, organizers suggested forgoing the traditional singing of “We Shall Overcome” because the inauguration was about to begin. But the crowd shouted protests, so the choir and congregation sang the civil rights anthem before settling in to watch the events in Washington.
“You feel like anything is possible,” said Jelin Cunningham, a 15-year-old black girl. “I’ve learned words alone can’t hurt or stop you because there have been so many hateful things said about him over the past four years.”
“We pray that this day will be the beginning of a new day in America,” she said. “It will be a day when people draw inspiration from the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. It will be a day when people realize and recognize that if it were not for Dr. King and those who fought the fight fought in that movement, we would not be celebrating this presidency.”
She also stressed her father’s commitment to nonviolence, saying that after the 1956 bombing of the family’s home in Montgomery, Ala., her father stood on the porch and urged an angry, armed crowd to fight not with guns but with Christian love.
“This apostle of nonviolence perhaps introduced one of the bravest experiences of gun control that we’ve ever heard of in the history of our nation,” she said.
The service also kicked off a year of celebrations of the 50th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington. A group of students, led by King’s great-niece Farris Christine Watkins, delivered sections of the speech in turn.
By the end, the crowd was on its feet, shouting, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
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