Before leaving his wife on her birthday to stump for a Democratic Senate candidate in Massachusetts, President Barack Obama stepped into the same pulpit Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did more than 50 years ago to talk about the legacy of the civil rights leader.
Speaking to an enthusiastic congregation of nearly 300 people at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, founded in 1866 by former slaves, Obama called King and those who fought with him for civil rights the “Moses generation.” He exhorted parishioners -- those he termed the “Joshua generation” -- to “get back to basics” as Americans faced the challenges of a “new age.”
It was the second time as President that Obama made an appearance at a local house of worship. As president-elect, Obama and his family attended services once at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, a Northwest Washington institution that is one of the oldest historically black churches in the District, according to the Washington Post.
But it was Vermont Avenue Baptist Church that had the honors this time. White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and director of faith-based and community initiatives Joshua Dubois were among those who joined the President, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, at the 11 a.m. service.
During his speech, Obama also encouraged those in the audience to learn from previous the generations' firm resolve, belief that government can be a force for good and commitment to universal ideals.
“Our predecessors were never so consumed with theoretical debate that they couldn't see progress when it came,” Obama said. “Sometimes I get a little frustrated when folks just don't want to see that even if we don't get everything, we're getting something.”
In his remarks at the Washington church, Obama reflected on the difficulties he has faced in pushing key elements of his legislative agenda through Congress and the periodic distractions that have arisen from remarks about his race.
Referring to the “post-racial” and “post-partisan” shift in the country that many observers predicted would flow from his inauguration a year ago, he said, “That didn't work out so well.”
But Obama urged listeners to have faith that things would slowly improve.
“Each season, the frost melts, the cold recedes, the sun reappears; so it was for earlier generations and so it will be for us,” he said.
Later the president headed to Boston in support of the Senate candidacy of state Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is in a tight race for the seat long held by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who died in August. Coakley's defeat would upend the Democrat's 60-vote majority in the Senate, making it impossible to overcome a filibuster that could kill hard-fought health care legislation.
King himself spoke in 1956 at Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, located less than 2 miles north of the White House. Freed slaves
founded the church the year after the Civil War.
Then a 27-year-old preacher who was emerging as a prominent voice in the civil rights movement, King visited Washington shortly after the Supreme Court sided with a ruling that led to the end of racial segregation aboard city buses in Montgomery, Ala. King was one of the leaders of a bus boycott that lasted more than a year.
Monday's King holiday will be the first that Obama, the first black president, will commemorate as the nation's leader.