One of eight floats scheduled to participate in the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House will honor King, featuring his image and a representation of his quote "out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope."
A wreath-laying ceremony was planned for Sunday at the King memorial on the Mall, though it was scheduled during Obama's swearing-in at the White House, and the president was not expected to attend.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a veteran of the civil rights movement who knew King and knows Obama, said the symbolism is overwhelming.
"It is almost too much to believe that we would commemorate this year, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington," Lewis said. "I don't know what you'd call it, something about time and history and fate all coming together."
Lincoln issued the proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, during the Civil War, declaring all slaves in states rebelling against the Union to be "forever free."
Vicki Crawford, director of Morehouse College's Martin Luther King Jr. Collection, said the inauguration falling in a year of civil rights milestones is a prime opportunity for the nation to re-examine its past and look ahead to the future.
"Obama is a part of the continuum of a history that began before Dr. Martin Luther King," she said. "It's a long history of struggle to make America the place it should be to make real on the promise of democracy. This is a momentous time; 2013 is a crossroads."
Harris, the Columbia University professor, said that while King's moment in 1963 and Obama's in 2013 are evidence of how far the country has come despite persistent racial polarization, he would like to see Obama start to emphasize issues that were important to King.
"I would also hope that this won't be just a day of recognition but also that it will point in some direction in the second term that the president will begin to speak much more clearly and forcefully about the persistence of racial inequality in American life," he said.
Associated Press writer Kate Brumback in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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