Cornel West recalled the recent comment by a Nobel Peace Prize committee member: Barack Obama's presidency was the fulfillment of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream.
But addressing the mostly black audience at Ebenezer Baptist Church Monday, the iconic author and theatrical Princeton University professor disagreed.
"Obama is a fulfillment of King's dream, but it's not the fulfillment," he said to an eruption of applause.
West was the highlight of the 42nd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Service. Across metro Atlanta, in cities such as Stone Mountain, Fayetteville and Marietta, people held parades, ceremonies and volunteer activities to honor King, who would have been 81 this year.
But the downtown service on Auburn Avenue, presided over by King's sister, Christine King Farris, and daughter, Bernice King, remains the largest ceremony in King's honor in Atlanta. Martin Luther King III could not attend because he was in Washington to lobby for healthcare reform, Bernice King said. Dexter King was absent as he recovers from a July 2009 car accident.
West centered much of his fiery speech on King's upbringing and mission, saying King's life was not about freedom and equality for African-Americans but for all people who are oppressed, poor or marginalized. He said Obama's presidency may mark the end to what he called a Reagan-era focus on corporate greed and indifference to the poor. But even Obama hasn't gone far enough to address the reality of the poor, West said.
"Even with your foot on the brake, there are too many precious brothers and sisters under the bus," he said. "Where is the talk about poverty? We've got to protect him and respect him, but we've also got to correct him if the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is going to stay alive."
"We're going to help you," West continued. "We love you, but we're going to keep you accountable, too."
In a speech marked by several moments of humor, West wondered, "If McCain and Palin had taken over, what would have happened?" And then he turned to the panel behind him, where U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson sat, and said: "I say this with love for our Republican brother." Then he interrupted his speech to hug Isakson, who laughed as the audience applauded.
Many speakers discussed how to apply King's vision to contemporary times. King Center President and CEO Isaac Newton Farris Jr., and others, such as Isakson, urged people to help with earthquake recovery in Haiti.
"Open your heart, your wallet and your hands," Farris, Jr. said.
Former Gov. Roy Barnes criticized predatory lenders for taking advantage of the poor and contributing to the country's economic demise, calling for more regulation in the housing industry. Citing King's mission, DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis condemned complacency and urged people to address social ills, a message echoed by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who received a standing ovation.
Praising King's "toughness," Reed said to the audience: "The question we must ask ourselves every day, to truly honor Martin Luther King Jr., is ‘Have I done enough?'"
Frits Huffnagel, vice-mayor of The Hague in the Netherlands, announced that his city and The King Center are considering opening a European King Center.
"The Hague feels exceptionally proud to be the host of the future European King Center," Huffnagel said. "More than 40 years after Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, he still inspires untold numbers of people ... not only in the U.S., but throughout the whole world."
The more than three-hour service was part ceremony and part church service, with a massive choir leading the audience in song. But pianist Dana Kristina-Joi Morgan's thunderous, classical rendition of "To God Be the Glory" stole the show, bringing the audience to its feet throughout her memorable performance.
Michael Walker, who flew from Washington to Atlanta with friends for the ceremony, said he leaves with a greater understanding of the freedom movement.
"This opens up your eyes to the experience of the movement, and what part I can play in the progression of Martin Luther King's vision."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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