Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Live Event/Special

From MLK To Today

Aired January 19, 2009 - 12:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: He inspired a movement and transformed a nation. Remembering Martin Luther King Jr., and reliving his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Dr. King's dream and Barack Obama's rise to the presidency on the eve of his inauguration -- Obama honors the King's legacy through service.
I'm Soledad O'Brien. Welcome to our special coverage of the Martin Luther King holiday, "From MLK to Today."

We also want to welcome our viewers from around the world, and online as well at


AUDIENCE: Yes, we can! Yes, we can! Yes, we can!


O'BRIEN: Here on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and in just a moment, we will bring to you Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. And in just 24 hours, the nation will swear in its first African-American president. Many people see this as a fulfillment of Dr. King's dream, a dream that one day people would be judged not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. And those words echoed from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial more than 45 years ago.

So we would like to now take you back to that moment on August 28, 1963. It was during the march on Washington for jobs and freedom.

So here, in its entirety, is Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech. Please listen.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER: I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.


Five score years ago, a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity, but 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.

One hundred years later...


... the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. And so we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense, we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. And this note was a promise that all men -- yes, black men, as well as white men -- would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."


But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.


We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.


Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.


Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time...


... to make justice a reality for all of God's children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.


There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.


We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plain of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.

Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.


And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.


We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating "For whites only."


We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.


No. No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.


I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.

You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettoes of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.


So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, "We hold these truths to be self- evident that all men are created equal."


I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.


I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.


I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with words of interposition and nullification, one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.


I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.


This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning, "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims' pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring." And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside.


Let freedom ring to the heavens. When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"



O'BRIEN: The "I Have a Dream Speech" continues to inspire us today. It's as relevant today as it was 45 years ago. Coming up next, I'm going to talk to the man who helped write those visionary words, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speechwriter and attorney, Clarence Jones.

Stay with us.



JORDAN SARVER, IREPORTER: This shows that America is ready to move forward, that America is not still judging people based on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character. This is what Martin Luther King fought for. This is what the civil rights era was for. This is what everything that every older black person in the South fought for.

When those signs said "Whites Only" and "Blacks Only," this is the equality that they sought, and this is the equality that we have. And you know, there's nothing that I can say that can really compare to what this moment means to someone like myself. And I'm just so proud, and I'm just so happy.


O'BRIEN: That's CNN iReporter Jordan Sarver from Dr. Martin Luther King's home state of Georgia, expressing joy that so many people are feeling today as they honor Dr. King with a day of service, and also prepare for and look forward to tomorrow's inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African-American president elected in the United States.

Many people say Barack Obama's swearing in could mark the fulfillment of Dr. King's dream.

CNN contributor Roland Martin and I are joined by Clarence Jones, speechwriter for Dr. Martin Luther King, adviser, confidante, lawyers.

A long list of things, Clarence, that you were to Dr. King.

The day of the speech, which you helped draft, along with other people, what was the tone like? What was the feel like? Out here on the Mall it's very exciting. A concert over our shoulders already, but what was it like back in '63?

CLARENCE JONES, MLK SPEECHWRITER: Well, back in '63 -- first of all, this is kind of an emotional deja vu. It feels like a little combination of the March on Washington in '63, the Million Man March. But over the years, I just want to be sure that we don't get engaged in what I call revisionist history.

I was privileged to be part of a collective. That speech, yes, I participated in the scribing of it, but that -- I also participated with Stanley Levinson, beloved, dear adviser of Martin Luther King; Andy Young; Reverend Wyatt T. Walker; Walter Fauntleroy. In fact, the night before we had assembled -- I mean, some of the people that I mentioned assembled in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, in a corner of the lobby there with Dr. King. And Walter Fauntleroy was there, Bayard Rustin was there, Cleveland Robinson...

O'BRIEN: Were you nervous? Were you anxious? Were you afraid? Were you excited? What was the tone?

JONES: No, no, no, no. No, we were -- actually, a number of us were -- you know, were offering our opinions as to what we believed Dr. King should say the following day. Some of us were more forceful in our opinions than others.

And there came a time when he said, "Clarence, are you taking some of this down?" And I said, "Yes, I'm making some notes." And then he said, "You know, I think what you ought to do is go upstairs and try and summarize and come back and read to us the notes of what everybody was thinking."

O'BRIEN: So you typed up the notes.

JONES: No, there was no typewriter. I mean, there was a typewriter, but I didn't use it.

O'BRIEN: Wrote up the notes, and they were handed out to a typist later.

JONES: We had no BlackBerry, we had no laptop. No. No, it was just a ballpoint pen and yellow paper. OK?

And you know, I wrote the notes down as accurately as I could remember taking them. And then in the course of doing that, I also had some pieces of paper from other drafts of ideas that had been there, and I thought it would be useful just to actually -- actually write out, you know, three or four paragraphs. I actually wrote out about six or seven paragraphs of what he might consider opening the speech with, including the notes of the conversation that we had.

So I came back down and read the notes to the people assembled. And I hadn't even started reading more than 60 seconds, and someone started interrupting and said, "Yes, but you didn't say this. You left out this."


O'BRIEN: The "I had a dream" part was not in those notes. It was not in that.

JONES: No, no, no.

O'BRIEN: Many people think of this as "I Have a Dream" speech. It was not called "I Have a Dream."

JONES: No. That was entirely extemporaneous.

I think it was triggered by -- you know, the first seven paragraphs really reflected the draft of the text that I actually wrote, reflecting the ideas of the other writers. But after you get past this, oh, maybe about -- you get up to the 16th paragraph of the speech, he starts talking about, you know, "I have a dream," you know, "a dream that's deeply rooted in the American dream."

I think there was a confluence of two events. Mahalia Jackson, whom he loved, he had -- she had yelled out to him or something, "Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream." And I was watching Martin give...

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: She was his "amen" caller.

JONES: What?

MARTIN: She was his "amen" caller.

JONES: That's right. That's correct.

And I was -- and he grabbed the podium, and then he turned the text upside down.

O'BRIEN: So he's done with that speech and...

JONES: Well, he turned it, and he looked out over the 200,000, 300,000 people assembled. I leaned over to someone and I said, "These people don't know it, but they're about ready to go to church." OK? And that's when he started saying, "I have a dream."

MARTIN: This was a hugely important speech, because, again, with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the White House did not want this to take place.

JONES: Right.

MARTIN: And so they were trying to drive this whole economic policy.

JONES: Oh yes.

MARTIN: So you read the top half of that speech, I mean, that was a major -- that was a major piece of talking points there in terms of...

JONES: Oh, no question. No, the speech was crafted to make a certain point.

O'BRIEN: Has it frustrated you that it's been boiled down to the "I have a dream" part?

JONES: Yes, it has. It has. But that's -- that's the media. That's the way it works.

But the point is, is that -- I mean, the other thing that I should point out is that, you know, Obama, when he was running for president, is he, on the steps of the state capitol in Springfield, Illinois, he talked about, "I'm running for the fierce urgency of now."

Now, what he did is that he or his advisers, or somebody, referenced the sixth and seventh paragraph of the speech. Because the sixth paragraph says -- I'm quoting Martin -- "We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy." The seventh paragraph contains, "It would be fatal to the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment."

So I'm listening to Obama, and I said, now, this brother is creative.

O'BRIEN: Well, you know...

JONES: I'm not going to say it's plagiarism, but he's creative.

O'BRIEN: But that's an interesting point, because I read a story that you wrote little Cs on all the pages of the speech for copyright.

JONES: No, no, no. This was after -- you know, the speech was done at around 5:00 in the morning. You know, Dora McDonald and called me and said -- and so I said, "Where is it?" "Well, we gave it to the press tent."

The press tent was the tent that gave out all the media and so forth. And I went over to the press tent and I see that they had about 75 envelopes, and they had mimeographed copies of the speech. And I pulled out a copy and I said, "Wow." When I just looked at it, and suddenly, I don't know why, something came to me.

MARTIN: The lawyer in you.


JONES: Yes, at the time.

O'BRIEN: He said copyright that speech. That was a good speech.

JONES: And I said, "Hold on." I said, "Who is this going to be distributed to?" "Well, this is going to be distributed to the press." I said, "Yes, but it could be distributed to the public."

So I asked for some ballpoint pens and I asked some people to come. I said, "Please, take all these -- take the speech out of all the envelopes and sit down and write, and put a circle with a 'C' inside of it on each copy of the speech."


Now, little did I know that that would be a contentious issue, because some two or three weeks after, you know, a record company called 20th Century Fox Records, I think it was called, put out a speech which was really unauthorized in terms of their permission to do it. And the very thing we had to prove in federal court was that we had the copyright to the speech.

O'BRIEN: Clarence Jones...


O'BRIEN: The lawyer comes through.

JONES: Yes, the lawyer did come through at that time.

O'BRIEN: It is such a pleasure to talk to you, because your stories about what went on at the time and behind the scenes are amazing.

JONES: Right.

O'BRIEN: Clarence has written, for those of you who do not know, an amazing book.

MARTIN: A great book. A great book.

O'BRIEN: And it really is about that. You know, what would Martin say on this, and this day, as a black president, an African- American president is about to be sworn in?

JONES: Well, you know, I think it would be remiss -- you know, there are a lot of people who made this day possible. You know, some are deceased, some are living, and some are not.

I ran into Harry Belafonte. I mean, Harry Belafonte was a major part of this movement.

O'BRIEN: We'll be talking to him later today.

JONES: Stanley Levinson. You know, Cleveland Robinson, Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Cotton, Wyatt T. Walker, Walter Fauntleroy. Obviously John Lewis.

O'BRIEN: Andrew Young.

JONES: There are legions -- you know, I call them winter soldiers. I call them people who the public doesn't generally know. All right? But who gave their life, who gave their time, and worked 24/7 to make this happen. And so when I reflect back on this, I reflect with a little bit of emotional nostalgia.

In fact, someone said to me as I was watching, you know, as I was watching Senator Obama being declared the President-elect, and then tears came up, and they said, "Well, why were you crying?"

I said, "I was crying, yes, tears of joy for Obama, but really my tears were principally for those people who didn't live long enough to see it." I was thinking about Fanny Lou Hamers, I was thinking about Louis --

MARTIN: James Farmer.

JONES: James Farmer, absolutely, Jose Leons and so forth.

O'BRIEN: Always a pleasure to talk to you.

JONES: Thanks my pleasure.

O'BRIEN: Thank you so much for an interesting look at history.

JONES: Thank you and I think CNN should be commended for what you're doing. And I want to say to the King Estate (ph), thank you, my brothers and sisters, for permitting CNN to have it. And Joe Beckett you did a good job -- O'BRIEN: You took the words right out of my mouth. We do appreciate.

MARTIN: We appreciate it, absolutely.

O'BRIEN: We do appreciate it. That is a real rarity to have a chance to run that speech and we are very grateful for the permission --

JONES: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: -- because it does not come often. And it's a real opportunity, especially for the young people who've never had a chance.

JONES: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: We're going to take a short break. Back on the other side with our special coverage, "FROM MLK TO TODAY." Back in a moment.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody.

We've had an opportunity to chat with some of the folks in the crowd. The crowd's been growing since we came out at 9:00 o'clock in the morning. And it's not warm; it's a little bit chilly.

But we had a chance to play that speech, a speech that really you never get to hear in its entirety to some of the folks here. So first, tell me your name.


O'BRIEN: And what's your name?


O'BRIEN: Where are you from?

LOUIS: I'm from Jacksonville, Florida.

JOHNSON: Only in New York.

O'BRIEN: Ok, so fill me in. Have you ever had a chance to hear that speech in full?

LOUIS: Yes, I have.

O'BRIEN: When?

LOUIS: I heard it when I was in high school, and that was in the '70s.

O'BRIEN: Is it something that you -- sort of opened your eyes when you heard it another time? Because I always feel that people that sort of forget the message of Dr. King's speech.

LOUIS: Yes. Because when I first heard it, you did not really receive everything, but when you -- would hear it another time, then you could really appreciate the different parts of the speech itself.

And one part that sort of struck me was when they said that we had a check that was issued, that was insufficient but now we feel that we have something that is sufficient.

MARTIN: How about you?

JOHNSON: Yes, I heard it in school. We went over in public speaking and it was really good.

O'BRIEN: Many people forget that that speech was really about economic empowerment. I mean people talk about the dream as brotherhood but actually as you say, the negroes has been delivered a bad check and they've come to Capitol Hill to cash that check. That insufficient funds that he doesn't believe that the country has insufficient funds.

Do you think that there's enough of an understanding of Dr. King's message or has it been sort of, you know, pushed into its message --

JOHNSON: Yes, I think it has been lost a little bit. And people didn't realize -- don't realize it as much. You know what I mean? I don't know.

O'BRIEN: I want to introduce you to someone who is way down here, a young woman who's come all the way from South Africa. You may have come the farthest.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's a long ride.

MICHELLE: My name is Michelle.

O'BRIEN: And, Michelle, why are you here on the Mall on a cold day with no hat, I might add, why be in the crowd and why listen in the speech again?

MICHELLE: It's just so exciting, it's just great to be here with everyone. And people are just so excited about the future and excited for change.

ROLAND MARTIN: When you think about Obama, you think about Mandela, you think about Dr. King. Do you sort of think about all three of those together in terms of what they meant?

MICHELLE: I can definitely see links between them. They're definitely powerful speakers, that's just something that strikes me the most and just how they can bring people together and how they're just passionate about bringing change and bring out something new and just raising optimism in those people.

O'BRIEN: Well, thanks for coming out all the way, we appreciate it.

MARTIN: Here's a hat.

O'BRIEN: She's cold.

We've got to take a short break when we come back and we continue our special coverage, "FROM MLK TO TODAY" as we honor the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

And also look forward to the inauguration of the first African- American; first who'll be President of the United States come Tuesday at noon.

MARTIN: The President tomorrow at this time.

O'BRIEN: That's right.


TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We will get back to Soledad O'Brien in Washington, D.C. in just a moment. But right now let's get you caught up on the latest headlines from CNN.

Just days after its spectacular crash into New York's Hudson River, out of the water and under the microscope: that US Airways jet that went down in New York's Hudson River is being examined. Investigators want to look more closely at the cockpit, the plane's interior and that right engine. One of the flight data reporters captured thumping sounds and right after that the plane had a sudden loss of engine power. It is believed that thumping noise was geese hitting the plane.

And check out the front of this medical helicopter. A flock of geese slammed into the chopper last night near Little Rock, forcing it to make an emergency landing. Everyone made it out safely.

And in the Middle East, Israel is pulling its troops out of Gaza and hopes to have them all out by tomorrow night. Palestinian officials in Gaza say more than 1,200 Palestinians were killed during the 22 days of violence. Israel reports 13 Israelis killed.

Those are the headlines this hour from the CNN "Newsroom." Let's send it back to the nation's capital and Soledad O'Brien.

O'BRIEN: All right, Tony. Let's listen to the president-elect Barack Obama who has arrived at Coolidge High School. It's where Elaine Quijano is and he's about to start speaking. Let's listen. SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT-ELECT: I'll save all my best lines for tomorrow. The main reason Michelle and I wanted to come here today is just to say thank you. Both of us participated in the service this morning. And on a day where we remember, not just a dreamer, but a doer, an actor; somebody who dedicated his life to working at the grassroots level on behalf of change, on behalf of making communities better, on behalf of bringing about justice and equality.

It is fitting that all of you and hundreds of thousands, maybe more than a million people, through 11,000 service projects all across the country, today commemorated Dr. King and got involved in this process of remaking America.

Now, I am making a commitment to you as your next president; that we are going to make government work. And we're going to make sure that government is listening to you and focused on you and making sure that people have health care and that kids can go to college and that people can pay their bills and folks are able to stay in their homes and get good jobs that pay a living wage. That's my job.

But I can't do it by myself. Michelle can't do it by herself. Government can only do so much. And if we're just waiting around for somebody else to do it for us, if we're waiting around for somebody else to clean up the vacant lot or waiting for somebody else to get involved in tutoring a child, if we're waiting for somebody else to do something, it never gets done. We're going to have to take responsibility, all of us.

And so this is not just a one-day affair. Through;, we are going to make sure that there are service opportunities for people all throughout the year. And I hope that you are sufficiently inspired and had enough fun and made some friends that you decide you want to keep on doing this for many years to come. We're going to be doing it right alongside with you.

So thank you, everybody, for your great work. Michelle, anything you want to add? We are going to come around and just shake just about everybody's hand, but we need you to stay in your seat because if you don't stay in your seat, we'll end up missing somebody. OK? All right.

Thank you, everybody. God bless you.

O'BRIEN: That's the President-elect Barack Obama. He's where Elaine Quijano has been reporting for us all morning, Coolidge High School. And he says now he's going to go, Elaine, and shake everybody's hand after really encouraging people who have been working at the grassroots level and really tossing it back to Martin Luther King Jr. as well, working to make changes and showing a real connection -- Elaine.

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's absolutely right. We heard the president-elect himself say this was really not just about being a dreamer, but a doer as well. That's what he was doing here is trying to rally the troops, so to speak, to get out there and volunteer.

We should tell you what this group is doing, about 300 or so volunteers, is focusing on doing projects for the troops. They're doing things like writing letters, writing cards, getting blankets together for injured soldiers.

Of course, the president-elect himself was just visiting some wounded troops at Walter Reed earlier today. And we saw that video of him also visiting that emergency shelter for homeless teenagers.

It's been interesting, Soledad, to talk to some of the people here. I talked to a little boy, nine years old, a fourth grader at a D.C. area school about what it meant to him, his name is Ammanny Haskell (ph). And I have to tell you, he was very, very articulate and very emotional too but in a controlled way.

I asked him, how does this make you feel? How does this moment in history make you feel? Again, nine years old, he said, well, I feel full. I feel full of myself, which of course adults might take to mean a little bit of vanity, but what he meant by that is, I feel bigger. I feel stronger. I feel inspired. And one could really see that on his face.

And you can see the enthusiasm from the crowd here as the president-elect goes through. They're really having to ask people to sit in their seats. They had been told, Soledad, just minutes before the president-elect and Mrs. Obama arrived that they were going to be getting a visit from a very special guest.

Many of these volunteers actually didn't know that it was going to be the president-elect himself. It was sort of the buzz but they didn't know until the announcer actually said, ladies and gentlemen, the president-elect and Mrs. Obama.

So quite a bit of energy in this crowd, and what you hear now, Soledad, are the Calvin Coolidge High School cheerleaders. They did this cheer for us a little while ago. It is a cheer they have created specifically for the president-elect, and basically what they are saying is that in their eyes, President-elect Obama is number one -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: So great to see it. I have to say after girls did their -- the young women did their cheer, immediately three or four went and hugged Michelle Obama. It was really, really sweet. He has said that he's going to take pictures with everybody, which means he'll be there -- he might even miss the inauguration if he takes pictures with everybody.

MARTIN: He pulled a Bill Clinton moment. It will take him forever to leave.

QUIJANO: It's a big room.

O'BRIEN: We can sense the excitement from here, Elaine. Describe, if you can, what it feels like in that room. I mean, are people just over the top? Because I hear bursts of cheering every so often.

QUIJANO: Yes, it is very electric at this particular moment. There have been a lot of buildup because throughout the morning we slowly saw volunteers coming in. They were excited, to be sure. They obviously were here because they felt compelled to take part and to answer this call, this national call to service. But then we had a surprise moment early in the day when Vice President-elect Joe Biden came and he was delivering donuts.

For the first ten minutes or so that he was here, I don't think people realized he was in the room. Then when word got out, it was basically like a rush to the vice president-elect to try to get their pictures taken. Quite a bit of energy.

And again, at this moment, of course you can just tell, this crowd is very enthused. I don't think a lot of work is actually getting done at this moment in time. I see a lot of volunteers obviously trying to see where the president-elect is so that they can have him over and get their picture taken. But truly for these volunteers, an inspiring moment -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Yes, absolutely worth taking a break from all that work so you can be in a photo with the president-elect on the day before he becomes the president. I think everyone would understand that.

MARTIN: Good reason to skip work.

O'BRIEN: Elaine, thank you very much.

You can hear over our shoulder a concert. It's been a little bit of activity here on the mall; a concert over our shoulders. It's been nice entertainment for the folks who've been coming out, some talking about staking out a spot. Others really recognize there are going to be maybe two million people out here Roland and they're not going to get a spot.

But to come out the day before because there's tremendous excitement here too; we don't have the president-elect and Michelle walking through, but still people are very excited, fully aware between of connection between Martin Luther King Jr., whose memory we honor on this day, and looking forward to tomorrow when the first African-American president will be sworn into office here. It is quite a remarkable thing, historically speaking.

MARTIN: Again, one of the things that I've made -- this generation has not really had those kinds of monumental moments to participate in. And so, that's what this speaks to. For the people who raised us, who talked about the march on Washington, we got this one. And that's what it means. So it's history for a lot of folks.

O'BRIEN: But today the focus is on a day of service with Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Dr. Biden -- Joe Biden and his wife. We're beginning a very high-profile platform to the issue of service in this country.

We've got to take a short break. We continue our special coverage, "FROM MLK TO TODAY," as CNN continues looking forward to the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Short break, we're back in just a moment. Stay with us.


MARTIN: Many children who used to idolize sports players and celebrities are now turning their hero affections to President-elect Barack Obama. In an exclusive interview with Mr. Obama, CNN's John King talked about a 14-year-old boy named Melvin. And asked him how Obama's presidency will change the future of kids like Melvin.


OBAMA: What Melvin is going to benefit from hopefully is some good policies from my White House, but I also hope he's going to benefit from parents who instill in him a thirst for learning. That he has a community that is supportive of the idea that there's nothing wrong with black boys or any American child hitting the books before they worry about whether they're popular or whether they're worrying about their sports.

You know, I think the idea that each and every one of us has responsibilities to the next generation is one of the things that I want to communicate, both on inauguration day, and throughout my presidency.


MARTIN: Well, let's talk about grassroots activism. Joining me right now is John Hope Bryant of Operation Hope in Los Angeles. He's the CEO. And also Dr. Michael Beckwith, he's the founder and spiritual director of the Agape International Spiritual Center also in Los Angeles.

Gentlemen, thank you so very much.

A few moments ago, we played Dr. King's speech, and people overlooked the most important part, that was the top two-thirds where he talked about economic disparities. What is happening on the grassroots level to drive home that issue, to close the gap between the classes?

JOHN HOPE BRYANT, CEO, OPERATION HOPE: Well, the new issue, the new civil right is going to be financial literacy because when you know better, you do better in what I call silver write which is about making free enterprise and capitalism finally work for the poor.

You know, if you're middle class today -- and this is what's sort of makes it relevant to everybody -- you're middle class today, you're still poor. It's not about white, black, red, brown or yellow, it's about having more green. And people understand it's not about making more money these days, but making better decisions with the money you make, and that becomes -- it's about becoming a stakeholder and an owner in America.

So this new movement is not going to be about raising the color line, I don't believe. That will still be an issue. It's about class and poverty.

MARTIN: Right. But Michael, it has to be a bottom up as opposed to top down. How are you encouraging people to say you do have power on the grassroots level to change the condition of your community?

DR. MICHAEL BECKWITH, AGAPE INTERNATIONAL SPIRITUAL CENTER: Absolutely. You're speaking my language. Everyone is pinning their hopes on Barack Obama, but actually they have to take personal responsibility to become educated, to develop a level of financial literacy, to begin to have a vision and walk in that direction every single day of their life.

We have one day of celebration and then from this moment on, individuals have to look at themselves and see how they can better themselves and move forward. You can't place all of this on Barack.

MARTIN: Twenty seconds each, where do they start, though? At 12:02, where does that person sitting at home watching right now start?

BRYANT: go to a free class for financial literacy in any city across America to give a hand up, not just a hand out. Teach your children and make sure this crisis never happens again.

MARTIN: Michael.

BECKWITH: You have to believe in yourself. You have to believe that there's a power and a presence within you. And if you listen to that guidance it will propel you into right action.

MARTIN: All right. Gentlemen, I certainly appreciate it. John, thank you very much. Michael, thank you so much.

Lots more conversation here on the Mall of Washington as we prepare for the 44th, the 44th President of the United States. Our coverage continues, "FROM MLK TO TODAY" right here on CNN.



KING: God has placed a responsibility on myself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Going to Birmingham was, to him, the possibility of an imminent death.


O'BRIEN: "FROM MLK TO TODAY," 46 years after racial barriers begin to crack in Birmingham, the nation awaits a groundbreaking moment in history. Is Dr. King's dream finally realized? Are we all finally one?

You'll be surprised by the findings of the CNN poll as inauguration fever sweeps Sundance. The independent film festival is happy to share the spotlight with the ultimate reality show right here in Washington, D.C.

Welcome everybody. I'm Soledad O'Brien. You're watching CNN's live coverage of the Martin Luther King, Jr. national observance.