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Martin Luther King Day: How far is America along road to the 'dream'?

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Ronald Reagan signed legislation establishing Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday in 1983, a moment when many people came to recognize King as a pivotal and aspirational figure for all of America, not just as a leader of blacks who championed their civil rights. King, whose words in the inspiriational “I have a dream” speech and the philosophical “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” lifted up a nation, was assassinated in Memphis,Tenn., on April 4, 1968.

Since then, America’s black middle class has become larger and more influential, especially in places like Atlanta, King's home town. America’s black middle class is now “the wealthiest, best-educated community of black people in the world,” writes Mr. Williams.

Yet, on this confluence of MLK Day and Obama’s inauguration, some Americans suggest that the president may be less the benefactor of King’s “dream” and more its modern-day standard-bearer.

Large numbers of African-Americans attended Monday’s inauguration on the National Mall in Washington, and some said that young, low-income blacks, especially, relate to Obama because they see him defending opportunities and government help for those who are struggling.

Those views hint at a stubborn perception gap, in which a majority of blacks cite discrimination as a roadblock to success in the US while whites, by an equally large margin, believe that blacks seldom, if at all, experience bias.

But in a common perception that links to King’s insistence that blacks bear responsibility for their situation, a majority of both races say African-Americans who don’t get ahead have primarily themselves, not discrimination, to blame, according to the Pew Research Center. 

Moreover, some Americans perceive, rightly or wrongly, that Obama emphasizes King's calls for "societal responsibility" in redressing racial discrimination over King's point that individuals bear personal responsibility for ameliorating such bias, as a function of God-given "natural law." They worry that such an emphasis leads to an overreliance on government to fix everyone's problems – and consequently, an oversized government. Indeed, the debate over striking the right balance between societal and individual responsibility is playing out today in issues ranging from gay marriage to tax policy concerning whether to raise taxes on the rich or cut spending on programs for the poor. 

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