The only United States federal holiday honouring an African-American is celebrated today, and Democratic candidates in the Presidential races have evoked the memory of Martin Luther King in their bid for the White House.

Celebrated on the third Monday in January, Martin Luther King Day will be marked with a debate between the Democratic candidates sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus and broadcast on CNN.

Yesterday Senator Barack Obama, one of the frontrunners and arguably the first African-American candidate with a realistic shot at the White House, spoke at the Atlanta Baptist church where Dr King began his career as a minister.

He made his support for the gay community explicit:

“For most of this country’s history we in the African-American community have been at the receiving end of man’s inhumanity to man,” he told the congregation.

“And all of us understand intimately the insidious role that race still sometimes plays, on the job, in the schools, in our health care system, and in our criminal justice system.

“And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean.

“If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King’s vision of a beloved community.

“We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them.

“The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community.

“For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity.”

Many LGBT Americans are unhappy that the former First Lady and other Senate Democrats have not responded in a visible and assertive way to attacks against gay marriage and other gay rights efforts by conservative Republicans and religious advocacy groups.

In contrast, Obama has been unafraid to make the case for fair treatment for gay people. He is is pro-choice, favours civil unions for lesbian and gay couples and supports universal health care.

Senator Hillary Clinton, speaking in a Baptist church in Harlem, New York yesterday, emphasised her closeness to the African-American community and praised Senator Obama as “extraordinary.”

“I understand how difficult this choice is,” she said, according to the New York Sun.

Martin Luther King Day was signed into law by a Republican President, Ronald Reagan, in 1983.

However, with the exception of Mike Huckabee, none of the candidates for the Republican nomination will be attending events celebrating America’s greatest civil rights leader.

The South Carolina primary on Saturday will be a key test of the Demorcratic candidates’ appeal to African American voters.

A survey released last Thursday by polling company Mason Dixon survey Thursday saw 56% support for Obama among African Americans, compared to 25% for Clinton but among whites the former First Lady polls 39% to Obama’s 20%

28% of whites picked former Senator John Edwards but only 2% of blacks.