Barack Obama, marking his first Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as president of the United States, urged Americans on Monday to remember that the civil rights era is not ancient history.

“Sometimes in celebration of Dr. King’s birthday, we act as if this history was so long ago,” he said at a White House gathering of black senior citizens and their grandchildren.

Not for these people, who brought stories with them about the slain civil rights leader during a brief visit with Obama and his wife, Michelle, in the Roosevelt Room, just steps away from the Oval Office.

One woman, Mabel Harvey, whom Obama described as a “spry” 102-year-old, was whispering into the president’s ear as journalists entered the room.

“Ms. Harvey just now was whispering in my ear as you guys were walking in that, ‘This must be the Lord’s doing, because we’ve come a mighty long way,’” Obama said.

The president often tries not to focus on his race despite the significance of being the nation’s first black president.

Earlier in the day Obama and his family served food and drinks at a soup kitchen in Washington, D.C.

Photo credit: Reuters/ Jonathan Ernst (Obama chats with visitor Mabel Harvey as part of Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the White House)