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Leaders honor MLK, look to Obama’s future

Talia Whyte | 1/21/2009, 4:07 a.m.
The Rev. James Forbes, senior minister emeritus of The Riverside Church of New York, delivers the keynote address...
The Rev. James Forbes, senior minister emeritus of The Riverside Church of New York, delivers the keynote address at the 2009 Martin Luther King Jr. Day Memorial Breakfast, held Jan. 19, 2009, at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Diallo Ferguson

Religious and political leaders embraced the progress made in American race relations with the inauguration of President Barack Obama during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Memorial Breakfast, held Monday morning at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

For many, Obama’s road to the White House represents the realization of the slain civil rights leader’s famed dream.

“I am filled with the joy today from my ancestors who bear witness to Inauguration Day,” said state Rep. Gloria L. Fox.

Fox was one of many Massachusetts politicians that traveled to Washington to witness the inauguration, as was Gov. Deval Patrick, who arrived in the nation’s capital last week to get a head start on inaugural festivities.

In a video message broadcast at the breakfast, Patrick said that people around the world are seeing a new day in how Americans view themselves.

“This is more than Barack’s chance; it is our chance,” he said.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino flew back from Washington just to attend the breakfast. Menino said he felt proud that Boston played a role in both the lives of both King and Obama. The president’s national political career truly began in Boston during his rousing speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, while King received his doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University, where he also met his wife, the late Coretta Scott King.

Menino and state Attorney General Martha Coakley both said they were happy to see Obama’s commitment to embrace an urban agenda, which includes prioritizing the effects of the economic downturn on low-income communities. Coakley suggested that Obama is following in King’s footsteps by working to bring economic justice to all people, regardless of race.

“Dr. King’s dream is coming true [inauguration] afternoon,” Coakley said. “We need to prioritize what is really important in the nation today.”

The Rev. James Forbes, senior minister emeritus of The Riverside Church of New York and the breakfast’s keynote speaker, worked alongside King during the civil rights movement. Following the breakfast, Forbes flew down to Washington to participate in an afternoon prayer service with members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“I am filled with both joy and excitement to be part of history,” Forbes said. “But when the inauguration is over and the partying is done, there will be serious problems we have to address as a nation.”

Forbes said that Americans need to find their “amazing grace,” or figure out what their real purpose in life is, and find a way to contribute to the betterment of society. Otherwise, he said, those who don’t care about their lives are “illegal aliens.”

He also suggested that people of all faiths need to put aside their differences and work together on the nation’s largest problems, chief among them the perilous economy.

“We need to be part of God’s stimulus package,” Forbes said.

Forbes also said he would like to see an annual “racial and class justice audit” to review societal progress for minorities and low-income Americans. While electing a black president is a step in the right direction, Forbes said he couldn’t understate that black men still suffer disproportionately from unemployment and incarceration, which he called “21st-century slavery.”

All in all, however, Forbes said he believes that King, who would have turned 80 on Jan. 15, 2009, would have been amazed to see Obama take the oath of office on Tuesday.

“King would have been pleased, indeed,” he said.