WASHINGTON — On the eve of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday celebration and the approach of his own historic swearing-in as president, Barack Obama stood Sunday in front of the Lincoln Memorial, evoked the country's heroes and heritage and told the nation that "the dream of our founders will live on in time."
Obama spoke during an afternoon celebration of his historic election, featuring musicians led by Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce as well as famous actors, all entertaining an estimated half-million people on the National Mall with songs and readings aimed at capturing the gravity of the moment.
Obama, the first African-American to be elected president, looked out at the sea of people and told them, "What gives me hope is what I see when I look out across this mall. For in these monuments are chiseled those unlikely stories that affirm our unyielding faith — a faith that anything is possible in America."
He gazed fleetingly at the Washington Monument in the distance. "Rising before us stands a memorial to a man who led a small band of farmers and shopkeepers in revolution against the army of an empire, all for the sake of an idea," he said.
He looked at the World War II memorial down the mall, "a tribute to a generation that withstood war and depression, men and women like my grandparents who toiled on bomber assembly lines and marched across Europe to free the world from tyranny's grasp."
And just before him, he saw the reflecting pool, "a pool that still reflects the dream of a King, and the glory of a people who marched and bled so that their children might be judged by their character's content."
Finally, Lincoln — "watching over the union he saved," Obama said, "sits the man who in so many ways made this day possible."
Remember their struggles, Obama urged the crowd, and remember the "thread that binds us together in common effort, that runs through every memorial on this mall," and offers a lesson that "there is no obstacle that can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change."
Washington was crackling with energy on Sunday. The crowd chanted "O-bam-a" after his speech, and the echoes were audible several blocks away. The people sang along with Pete Seeger, Springsteen and others in a rousing chorus of "This Land is Your Land."
Obama, staying with his family at Blair House across from the White House, began his day at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns, where he and Vice President-elect Joseph Biden laid a wreath.
Obama then headed to the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, one of the city's most historic African-American churches. Organized 170 years ago, it has been an important player in the city’s cultural and religious life.
Hundreds were packed into the sanctuary when Obama, his wife Michelle, their two daughters and Marian Robinson, Obama's mother-in-law, entered and took seats in the second row, near the altar.
"God has prepared you and placed you," Senior Pastor Derrick Harkins said. "God will not forsake you," he said. "Go forward in prayerfulness and faithfulness."
He spoke of those who turned away from what he called the "flowery bed of ease" to champion justice — civil rights icon Rosa Parks; Nazi resistance hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer and King, whose 80th birthday is being celebrated Monday.
"Perhaps, just perhaps, you are where you are for just such a time," Harkins said.
Sunday afternoon, Obama joined the throng at the Lincoln Memorial, site of the August 28, 1963, "March on Washington" that featured King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
The Obamas and the Bidens sat in a glass-enclosed area to the left of the faux marble stage, and heard actor Denzel Washington open the program by noting that "we are inspired by the man we have elected to be the 44th president of the United States of America."
Out came Springsteen, backed by a predominantly African-American choir, and they sang "The Rising," his ode to America's efforts to deal with the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Other readings and songs followed, as Queen Latifah recalled how Marian Anderson sang there on Easter Sunday in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused her permission to sing before an integrated audience at nearby Constitution Hall.
Actor Samuel L. Jackson observed that "Martin Luther King did not live to see his dream fulfilled. His dream is being realized by all of us being here today." Next came Bono of rock band U2, who said that on Tuesday, "that dream comes to pass." Beyonce ended the two-hour event by leading everyone in "America the Beautiful."
The crowd had gathered early on a cloudy day when temperatures stayed in the 30s, but nothing seemed to bother them.
Geoff Keough and Lauren Gaudio dressed for the occasion in red, white and blue floral leis, American flag eye masks, and for Keough, a spangled Uncle Sam top hat. They brought hot coffee.
Dawn Arrington was not happy about the long security lines, but figured it was worth the wait. "I think it's a trial run for Tuesday," she said of the concert and its logistical aggravations. "How could we not make it?"
City residents were grateful for Obama’s Sunday schedule. Local resident Faye Roberson said many in the capital, particularly those living in its most poverty-stricken neighborhoods, shared key elements of Obama’s biography.
"Obama can understand people trying to feed their families," said Roberson, who has lived here for 40 years.
Sue Williams of nearby Alexandria, Va., agreed. The federal employee was heading for the Mall with her sister and parents, who had come from Massachusetts for the inauguration. They were covered in a flurry of Obama pins, hats and other paraphernalia.
"Obama can help elevate the credibility of this country around the world," Williams said. "There’s an underlying sense of hope and optimism that I’ve never seen before."
(Erika Bolstad and Jack Chang contributed to this story)
MORE FROM McCLATCHY: