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Americans Look Ahead - And Back Inauguration, King Holiday Share Center Stage

From the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, where President Clinton delivered his inaugural address Monday, you can see the Lincoln Memorial in the distance. It is there that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of America’s most famous speeches - at a time when many blacks could not have voted for William Jefferson Clinton.

Harold Pincus was shivering in the cold pondering this juxtaposition Monday - Clinton on one end of the Mall preaching the promise of the new millennium and King on the opposite end 34 years earlier, sounding his dream for a nation undivided by race, class and religion.

“Somehow,” said Pincus, a Chevy Chase, Md., psychiatrist, “it’s sort of an anchoring of the American spirit.”

The coincidence of the calendar - the inauguration falling on the same day as the national King birthday celebration - has evoked a range of often conflicting emotions. Some interviewed on Monday said they think the inaugural hoopla overshadowed the King observance; others said the federal King holiday enhanced the unveiling of Clinton’s second term.

“I think it makes it more special,” said 23-year-old Greta Scott, an interior designer from Lynchburg, Va.

“It’s a special day to celebrate as a nation and think about where we’ve come from and where we’re going.”

“It seems like the inauguration is affecting King’s holiday,” said Theodore Burke, who was selling inaugural buttons on a downtown street corner. “You can’t put those two together. Nah, you can’t do that.”

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced the King holiday bill four days after the civil rights leader was assassinated on April 4, 1968. It took 15 years for it to become law, surviving Senate filibusters and vigorous attempts to tarnish King’s name. Today, every state but New Hampshire has its own King day. The federal holiday is celebrated on the third Monday of January.

The 20th Amendment to the Constitution mandates that the president must begin his term on Jan. 20.

Despite the collision, many on Monday stopped to draw the links between a presidential ceremony and a civil rights leader’s legacy.

“Martin Luther King epitomized us coming together as a nation to bridge the racial divide,” said Royce West, a Dallas attorney who represents Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin. “And I think President Clinton is drawing on King’s strength to help him be the master architect for that bridge.”