DADE CITY — Forty years. That's how long the Bible said the Israelites wandered the desert before settling in the Promised Land. That's also the number of years between the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the election of the nation's first African-American president, Barack Obama.
The coincidence wasn't lost on the crowd of more than 500 who gathered Monday at At the Church of the Living Christ. God could have gotten the people out of the wilderness in two weeks, but he let them wander because they weren't ready, the pastors seated on the dais speculated. The same might have been true with America's readiness for an African-American leader.
"We had to wait this long to accept a black president," said the Rev. William Hanner, pastor of At the Church of the Living Christ.
The crowd came to commemorate King's Jan. 15 birthday with lots of singing, dancing, preaching and amen-ing.
But this year was different. Just as many sported Obama ribbons and buttons as they did items paying tribute to the slain civil rights leader.
The words hope and change, used at King celebrations for years, took on a new meaning on the eve of Obama's historic inauguration.
"Dr. Martin Luther King fought injustice, hate and strife. He fought for what should be. We should forever be indebted to him," said minister Carolyn Smith of Mount Zion AME Church.
Obama's presidency will further what King began, she said.
"A change has come. A change has come. Thank God almighty, a change has come."
The Rev. Wilbur Bush, who emceed Monday's program, said Obama would have some naysayers.
"When people say bad things about what's he going to do, you can tell them, 'What are you going to do?' " said Bush, who urged young men to "pull up your pants and treat your women right."
"You can tell the police chief to go home because we are going to act right," he said.
The Rev. Nathaniel Sims called King and Obama "disciples of Jesus Christ."
"If you look at the whole picture and behind the scenes and see who's calling the shots, it's Jesus Christ," he said.
The Rev. G.I. Bradley of Palmetto, the event's keynote speaker, reminded the crowd that King, whom he called "a true prophet of God," did not work toward his dream alone. Countless other civil rights activists stood with him.
He said people have a responsibility to carry on King's legacy and that includes reading the Bible, living frugally and participating in the democratic process.
"Use the book, use the bucks and use the ballot," he said.
Opal Bowman, 64, of Dade City said the timing of this year's King celebration made it extra special.
"We have a lot of expectations," said Bowman, who recalled traveling black families having to pack food and relieve themselves in the woods because the law barred them from restaurants and restrooms. "Nothing is going to be done without God and us pulling together any way we can."
Margaret Smith-Scippio, 77, of Dade City said she didn't believe this day would come.
"We came from slaves," said Smith-Scippio, whose father was an NAACP president. "No way in this world did I ever imagine this country would be ready for a black president in my lifetime."
Lisa Buie can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604.