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Shortly before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died in 1968, he predicted a black president in the White House in less than forty years.
And this year, 2013, the first black president, having been re-elected, will have his second inauguration on Martin Luther King Jr. Day – the federal holiday commemorating King’s life and the significance of America’s incredible civil rights movement.
This tremendous intersection of history will come 18 months after a national monument to King was unveiled in Washington, standing on federal grounds previously reserved for presidents – Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt.
In the 45 years since King’s assassination, the nation has progressed in ways that even the visionary Dr. King – who predicted a future black president during a time of racial trouble – could not have imagined.
Three women – including a black Republican -- have served as secretaries of state. A black man has served as Secretary of State after first serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A black man serves as the head of American Express. A black woman is the head of Xerox. Those are exceptional levels of achievement – they don’t represent the whole story when black unemployment remains twice the national average and a quarter of black America lives in poverty.
But it is also true that the American black middle-class is now the wealthiest, best-educated community of black people in the world.
In 1983, I was a young White House correspondent for The Washington Post when President Ronald Reagan signed the law making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday. President Reagan had reservations about creating the holiday, but his chief of staff, James Baker, persuaded the president that King’s lifework transcended any one race. He was more than a black hero. He represented the best of all America.
I remember feeling a tremendous sense of pride that America’s history of bitter racial division – from slavery and Civil War to lynching and laws of racial segregation – could be pushed aside by a white conservative president to honor King as an inspirational figure representing America’s capacity to dream and change for the better.
In January and February of that year, there were ceremonies, lectures and exhibits throughout the nation’s capital honoring King. The most significant was that year’s White House ceremony celebrating Black History Month. And the most intriguing White House guest speaking in honor of King was Richard Pryor, the famous and often profane black comedian.
(For younger readers who do not know who Richard Pryor is, go over to YouTube and watch one of his standup routines or go to Netflix and pull up the movie “Silver Streak.”)
At the ceremony, Pryor gave what was called the “first straight speech of his life” in celebration of King’s legacy
The Post ran a piece about Pryor’s speech titled “The Jester Weeps” recounting his emotional, heartfelt tribute to King and his legacy.
"I was too frightened to go down to Mississippi . . . I was too frightened to be a part of that," Pryor said candidly. "It swelled my heart up with joy and pride to think of the courageousness of every person who participated in that time . . . If it weren't for you people who went down there and did that, believe me, I know in my heart that I wouldn't be here today."
This year, as President Obama is inaugurated for the second time, the work of achieving Dr. King’s dream remains as work still unfinished. As a nation we Americans are still struggling with inequality. It is less overtly racial in most places. But there is no denying the current reality of bad schools, class division and painful family breakdown. All those forces are just as debilitating as any racist sheriff.
We are far from achieving the perfection of Dr. King’s “Dream” but that is no reason to ignore how far we have come. Even now, as we see shifting demographics seeding racial tension in some precincts, the country is still moving forward. The United States is a good country. This nation still labors to achieve the vision of Dr. King and President Reagan – the shining city on a hill.
Dr. King would have been 84 this week.
As Barack Obama takes the presidential oath of office for a second time, Dr. King’s spirit is vibrant, alive and well in our ongoing movement for justice for all.