Two thousand people marked the annual Martin Luther King Day holiday at a breakfast at the Minneapolis Convention Center Monday morning. It was the 20th anniversary of the event, and it featured the Reverend Joseph Lowery, a civil rights pioneer and successor to King.
Joseph Lowery was a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, begun after the successful Montgomery bus boycott in 1957. Martin Luther King Jr. first led the organization and made it one of the leading lights of the civil rights movement.
But more than 30 years after he succeeded King at the SCLC, Lowery told the crowd in Minneapolis this morning that King's dream hasn't been achieved, despite the election of the nation's first black president. Lowery said King's economic aspirations remain unfulfilled.
"Poverty was expanding even before this recession," Lowery said. "The poor were getting poorer, the rich were getting richer and fewer. Something's wrong when our institutions fail us and lead us in an economic crisis such as we now experience. Something's wrong when bankers spit in our faces, give billions in bonus with the money taxes give 'em to bail 'em out."
Lowery said he did take comfort in the fact that, at the age of 88, he'd lived long enough to see an African American win the White House.
But in an interview after his speech, Lowery also said he worried that Obama still faced some of the same opposition that King struggled against 50 years ago.
"There are forces in this country that would sacrifice the country in order to destroy his administration," he said. "I think they'd just as soon sink in it in this economic tsunami than to see his administration do well."
Lowery's remarks were his second appearance at Minnesota's largest observance of the King holiday, and marked the 20th anniversary of the annual breakfast program. Past speakers have included King's daughter, Yolanda, and son, Martin Luther King III.
Organizers of the event say as much as the speakers, the real value of the program are the people in the audience.
David Nasby is a retired vice president of the General Mills Foundation, the non-profit that has sponsored the event since it began. He was one of its first supporters and says he thinks it has come to represent the spirit of the holiday -- a time away from business as usual.
"I think they come, expecting that it's not going to be a fundraiser, it's not going to be a political introduction of all kinds of candidates," Nasby said. "But rather, it's a thoughtful time, to think about the message of King."
King's birthday was Friday. He would have been 81.