Martin Luther King Commemoration Draws Parallel in Struggles, Then and Now

The commemoration of the new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington D.C. evoked discussion of the nation’s economic and political disparities as thousands paid homage to the civil rights leader and his mission of social justice.

Speaker after speaker referenced King's "I Have a Dream" speech from 1963 to challenge others to carry on his fight, and to provide a stark reminder of the work still needed to be done today.

"Yes, my father had a dream. It was a dream, he said, that was deeply embedded in the American dream," said King's son Martin Luther King III. "The problem is the American dream of 50 years ago ... has turned into a nightmare for millions" who have lost their jobs and homes. The nation has "lost its soul," he said, when it tolerates such vast economic disparities, teen bullying, and having more people of color in prison than in college.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson also drew a comparison with today's banker-led economic recession,  "Instead of thinking with their minds, they were thinking about their greedy behinds” Jackson said to a roar of approval from the crowd.

Denise Berkley traveled from Boston to be part of the momentous occasion and she especially found Jesse Jackson’s comments poignant.

“And that’s true, that’s why Wall Street and that’s why businesses are in the condition they are in now,” Berkley told Fox News Latino about Jackson’s remark.

Drawing a comparison about the political climate now and then, King’s sister, Reverend Elder Bernice King, spoke with Fox News Latino about the parallels between the civil rights movement in the 1960’s and the current political and social climate for Latinos in the United States.

“There is a kinship in the struggles some of what is happening now resonates with what happened in the 50’s and 60’s. People being stopped, checked, profiled, arrested, and issues of people not being sensitive to families being together,” King said.

“But we have to address tightening up the borders and finding a way to create a citizenship path for Latinos that are here and who have been law abiding citizens.”

Rev. Elder King gave a rousing and emotional speech to the crowd as she explained how just before her father's assassination in 1968, he was mobilizing a poor people's campaign to occupy the nation's capital until the economic system changed.

She said the postponement of an earlier dedication because of Hurricane Irene that was planned on Aug. 28, the 48th anniversary of her father's "Dream" speech, may have been an act of God.

"Perhaps the postponement was a divine interruption to remind us of a King that moved us beyond the dream of racial justice to the action and work of economic justice," she said. "Perhaps God wanted us to move beyond the 'dream' into action."

U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia said President Barack Obama's election was "just a down payment" on King's dream. "We're not there yet," he said.

Others spoke about personal interactions with King.

US Ambassador Andrew Young said that King was sensitive about his height: “he was only 5’7, he didn’t like when tall people looked down him - now he is standing tall- 30 feet tall looking down on everyone,” he said in reference to the memorial's 30-foot-tall statue of King.

About 1.5 million people are estimated to have visited the memorial, with the statue of King and granite walls on which 14 of his quotations are carved, since it opened in August. The memorial is the first on the National Mall honoring a black American.

The sculpture of King with his arms crossed appears to emerge from a stone extracted from a mountain. It was carved by Chinese artist Lei Yixin. The design was inspired by a line from the "Dream" speech: "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope."

Hope was the message Virginia Hillery, 86, told Fox News Latino, emphasized in describing the effects Dr. King had on her life.

“I have dedicated myself to trying to do all the things he believed in and raise my eight children, 17 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren the same way,” she said.  “My husband was a Tuskegee airman and I am here to honor him and all of my friends that were airmen.”

Hillery sends out a tape every year to her grandchildren as they graduate from college with her favorite message from Dr. King. “Be true to yourself, don’t let others influence your beliefs,” she recites.

Some members of the younger generation were with their parents for the special day.

“I’m here for the Martin Luther King memorial,”  Tre Dominque Williams, 9, said. “I know that he had the march way back when, and Rosa Parks was there.”

He is important, “for Freedom” she recalled from a second grade class project.

Some 10,000 chairs set up in a field near the memorial site were all filled. Many others stood in overflow sections.

The August ceremony when the memorial opened had been expected to draw 250,000, though organizers anticipated about 50,000 for Sunday's event.

Violinist Miri Ben-Ari performed an original composition written for the event and the song "Bus Passed" with spoken word artists Poem-Cees. Poet Nikki Giovanni read her poem "In the Spirit of Martin."

Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow and James Taylor gave a concert after the dedication.

Ultimately, Bernice King said her family was proud to witness the memorial's dedication and hope it will spur action to solve the nation's problems.

Echoing her father's words, she told the crowd, "One day we'll all be able to say 'Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are all free at last."

Bryan Llenas can be reached at or on Twitter @LlenasLatino.

Contains some reporting from the Associated Press.

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