WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama yesterday recalled the work of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. as he urged those packing a Baptist church to take heart in hard times and celebrate progress - however small.
On the eve of the federal holiday marking King's birth, the first African-American president said he learned to rely on his faith even as he felt the "sting of criticism" during his first year as president.
"During those times it's faith that keeps me calm," he said.
Obama pointed specifically to his attempts to move the country out of the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression while pressing for an overhaul of the health care system.
Speaking to an enthusiastic congregation of nearly 300 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 America faces the challenges of a "new age."
King was a 27-year-old preacher emerging as a prominent voice in the civil rights movement when he spoke at the church in 1956.
Obama encouraged the audience to learn from previous 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," he 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."
And referring to the "post-racial" and "post-partisan" shift that many observers predicted would flow from his inauguration a year ago, he said, "That didn't work out so well." But he 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.