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Martin Luther King Day: How far is America along road to the 'dream'?

Problems that disproportionately beset black Americans – poverty, broken families, prison time – have barely nudged during the Obama administration. But Martin Luther King Day is also an occasion to recognize progress for the black community.

By Staff writer / January 21, 2013

Thousands take part in an MLK Day march honoring Martin Luther King Jr., Jan. 21.

Eric Gay/AP

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Atlanta

President Obama began his second presidential term on Monday by laying his hand upon two Bibles: One was used by Abraham Lincoln, the other belonged to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the “traveling" Bible that the civil rights leader carried on marches.

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Those two volumes are symbolic bookends to America’s past 150 years, especially when combined with Mr. Obama’s own achievement as the first African-American president of a former slave nation. But if Lincoln helped America correct its course by emancipating the slaves, it’s Dr. King’s “dream” of equal rights and a color-blind society that seems more fundamental today – Martin Luther King Day – as America's first black president begins another four years at the helm of the world’s most powerful republic.

To be sure, Obama has had to carry the burden of black America’s continuing problems, and his legacy may yet be tainted by the economic malaise that has idled nearly one-quarter of all able-bodied black workers – an unemployment rate twice that of white America. Other problems that disproportionately beset the African-American community – poverty, broken families, high incarceration rates – have also barely nudged under Obama. And in some political quarters, racial tensions have ticked up under Obama.

Yet as Americans take stock of the moment, the change that has swept across the country in the four decades since the onset of the civil rights movement is stunning and a testament to an inherent American goodness that King recognized and reinforced in his speeches and marches. 

“We are far from achieving the perfection of Dr. King’s ‘Dream’ but that is no reason to ignore how far we have come,” writes Fox News contributor and Washington media veteran Juan Williams, who is black. “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.”

Ronald Reagan signed legislation establishing Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday in 1983, a moment when many people came to recognize King as a pivotal and aspirational figure for all of America, not just as a leader of blacks who championed their civil rights. King, whose words in the inspiriational “I have a dream” speech and the philosophical “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” lifted up a nation, was assassinated in Memphis,Tenn., on April 4, 1968.

Since then, America’s black middle class has become larger and more influential, especially in places like Atlanta, King's home town. America’s black middle class is now “the wealthiest, best-educated community of black people in the world,” writes Mr. Williams.

Yet, on this confluence of MLK Day and Obama’s inauguration, some Americans suggest that the president may be less the benefactor of King’s “dream” and more its modern-day standard-bearer.

Large numbers of African-Americans attended Monday’s inauguration on the National Mall in Washington, and some said that young, low-income blacks, especially, relate to Obama because they see him defending opportunities and government help for those who are struggling.

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