CHICAGO -- On what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.'s 84th birthday, political and faith leaders gathered on the University of Illinois-Chicago campus on Tuesday to honor the civil rights pioneer's legacy and to discuss what King would have made of President Barack Obama's second inauguration.
In a discussion serving as the centerpiece of the Chicago-headquartered Rainbow PUSH Coalition's 23rd annual scholarship breakfast celebration, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Otis Moss Jr. -- both of whom were with King in 1968 on the last birthday he celebrated -- said King would be there "supporting the inaugural celebration, but he would not be satisfied" by what he saw in the nation's capitol if he were alive today.
"The debate in Washington is about the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling," Jackson told HuffPost at the event. "It is not about poverty. It is not about the working poor. It is not about racial disparities that take away from health care and education. It's not about a plan for reconstruction. … It is unfinished business."
Jackson, a former Democratic candidate for president and Rainbow PUSH's founder, met King in 1965 and was working as a full-time organizer with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference soon after. Jackson was with King on April 4, 1968, the day he was murdered at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.
When Jackson retold the story of how the gunshot that killed King echoed through the spring air that day, the "BANG!" reverberated off the walls of the UIC's exhibition hall.
After his friend's assassination, Jackson said the focus of civil right advocates was never on finding the gunman, but to target a larger culprit: "a sick society."
"We never stopped fighting," Jackson said. "It's really from the bloodstain of the balcony in Memphis to President Barack Obama winning out here in Grant Park, we never stopped fighting."
Looking ahead to Obama's second inauguration on Sunday, Moss said "the moments of celebration can never separate us from the commitment and life-long struggle." Moss noted that just one day after King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 in Oslo, Norway, he gave his "Quest for Peace and Justice" speech in which he famously vowed to "press on until every valley of despair is exalted to new peaks of hope."
"We live in an unfinished cathedral and we have to build on that. Dr. King laid a great foundation starting in Montgomery, but we have the responsibility of understanding, interpreting and being the dream," Moss said.
Meanwhile, amid the White House throwing its weight behind the push for an assault weapons ban and after Jackson called semi-automatic weapons "threats to national security" this week, Jackson again addressed gun control laws Tuesday morning.
When asked for a reaction to former Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich's criticism of Chicago as having some of the nation's "strictest gun laws" while also experiencing a surging homicide rate last year, Jackson described the Windy City as "an international theater for a war" that "Homeland Security must address."
"There are no gun shops in Chicago, so the guns are coming in from the suburbs, the drugs are coming in from Mexico and the jobs are going out to the Far East," Jackson said Tuesday. "The combination of drugs in and guns in and jobs out, that's the zone of disaster. Using Chicago as a jumping-off point is at the source of reality."
Moss and Jackson were to be joined In Chicago by the Rev. Andrew Young, former congressman, Atlanta mayor and a close friend and supporter of King's, but Young came down with pneumonia and was unable to participate. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle all delivered remarks at the event.