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History links King holiday, Obama swearing-in

Martin Luther King Jr.'s holiday takes on dual meaning for many Americans because it falls on the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration.
King Shared Holiday
People march down historic Auburn Avenue in Atlanta during the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. parade on Monday. For more than two decades, the federal holiday observing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday has largely been celebrated in his hometown. This year's observance, marking what would've been King's 80th birthday, will largely be commemorated in Washington, D.C., as the date falls on the eve of the historic inauguration.John Amis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Martin Luther King's flame has always burned brightest in Atlanta, but in a real sense, the torch is being passed to Washington, D.C., with his birthday and holiday taking on dual meaning for many Americans because it falls on the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration.

While Georgia's capital has traditionally been the place for the most high-profile observance that day, this year it will share the spotlight with the nation's capital.

But the shift from King's hometown does nothing to diminish the excitement of the moment, said William Jelani Cobb, an American history professor at Atlanta's Spelman College.

"That we would have a celebration of King's birth and the inauguration of the first black president on consecutive days is almost too much to ask for," Cobb said. "(Barack) Obama's election represents the fulfillment of the most well-known of King's dreams, that people would be judged by the content of their character."

As for Obama, part of his King Day will be spent volunteering as part of a national call for service. The back-to-back King holiday and inauguration are expected to draw millions.

Still, Atlanta will be in the spotlight with the traditional pomp and circumstance at King's spiritual home, Ebenezer Baptist Church, including the ceremonial wreath laying at the tomb and the ecumenical service. But this year's keynote speaker is Pastor Rick Warren, a Southern Baptist who opposes gay marriage.

That speech is just a warm-up, with Warren whisking away to Washington to give the invocation at Tuesday's inauguration, which is expected to draw more than 3 million people. Gay advocates assailed Obama for choosing Warren, while many conservative Christians hailed the pick.

For many, Obama's swearing in will be a culmination of a long holiday weekend in D.C. for King and inaugural events.

La'Keitha Daniels, an attorney in Atlanta, has been to the King service at Ebenezer, where King preached from 1960 until his assassination in 1968. She was also there last year when Obama came on the Sunday before the federal holiday.

This holiday, though, will be spent honoring both men in Washington.

"Hundreds of thousands of people are going there because it's the beginning of Dr. King's dream being realized," Daniels said. "Everyone feels that we are truly on the cusp of change and seeing the things he only dreamt about becoming a reality."

For months, the King legacy permeated Obama's campaign. He invoked the Southern Baptist preacher many times during his candidacy and accepted the Democratic nomination for president on the 40th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Even more special
King's nephew, Isaac Newton Farris Jr., believes his uncle's birthday has even more special meaning this year.

"Clearly, we set the tone in Atlanta in past years," said Farris, president and chief executive officer of The King Center where the preacher and his widow, Coretta Scott King, are entombed and where an eternal flame burns in civil rights leader's honor.

But this year will be clearly different. Only one of King's four children, Bernice, will attend the church service. Martin Luther King III will already be in Washington and Dexter King — who lives in California — will not be in Atlanta. Their sister, Yolanda, died in 2007.

Even Ebenezer's pastor, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, won't be around for the service for the first time since 2004. He's heading to Washington.

"If anything, the inauguration underscores once again the continuing significance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s prophetic voice in his time, and in our own," Warnock said. "It has raised the American consciousness of the work of a prophet that it held at arms' length during his lifetime."

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