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King's eldest son elected to head rights group

The eldest son of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sounded like his father Saturday, standing before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as its new president and preaching racial equality.

Martin Luther King III recited a part of his father's "I Have a Dream" speech in which the slain civil rights leader expressed the wish that his young children would someday live in a world without discrimination.

"As one of those four little children, I must remind you that while my father clearly had a dream, that one day is not today. The day that my father dreamed of has not been realized," King said to a cheering audience of about 200.

At 40, an age that his father never reached, King was elected Saturday by the civil rights organization's board as its fourth president. He will take over on his father's birthday _ Jan. 15.

King faces high expectations as he takes over an organization that has failed to recapture its prominence since his father's assassination in 1968 at age 39.

"He is picking up a hell of a responsibility, because Dr. King's movement in America today is deader than he is," said Hosea Williams, a former SCLC executive director.

King takes over from the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the SCLC with King's father, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy Sr. and others in 1957. Lowery was president for 20 years and announced last summer that he was stepping down. King will be the first SCLC leader who is not a minister.

King pledged to assess the SCLC's strengths and weaknesses in the coming months. He said he would visit chapters nationwide and meet with community leaders to develop a plan on racism, education, attacks on affirmative action and prison crowding.

King, who was 10 when his father was murdered in Memphis, became the first member of his family to hold elected office when he served on the Fulton County Commission from 1987 to 1993.

Outside of politics, he has traveled the country as a public speaker, quoting his father's words at length.

King's mother, Coretta Scott King, believes that because of her son's legacy he can lead the group effectively.

"I think he's standing on the shoulders of the past," she said. "Certainly with the legacy Martin has inherited, he should be able to lead the organization into the future."

Although she would not discuss what her husband would have thought of the day's events, she said she was "deeply humbled and deeply proud to see my son . . . follow in his father's footsteps."

Recalling the hatred that dogged his father, King said he receives bomb threats four or five times a year during his travels. When he was 39, he said, he reminded himself constantly, "This is the age that my father died at."