“President Obama represents the last lap of this unfinished race” to achieve equality, said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was near King on the day he was slain in Memphis.
The Obama-King moment is already imbued with a palpable resonance. “It is all so very deep to me,” said Clarence B. Jones, who in 1963 helped King draft his luminous “I Have a Dream” speech that he delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, opposite the Mall from the Capitol, where Obama will deliver his second inaugural address.
In the days leading up to the inauguration, Jones found himself in the throes of writing a letter to the president. “I’m going to ask him, ‘If you could just pause during your speech on Inauguration Day and look at the Lincoln Memorial, and then in the direction of the King Memorial, and say as you are taking the oath of office, “Martin, this one’s for you,” ’ ” he said.
Jones imagines that Obama might be more than a little introspective Monday. “It is magical,” he says of the confluence of events.
King: A guiding light
Nearly 45 after his death, King remains the lodestar when it comes to the great political causes launched in the United States.
It was his nonviolence movement, sweeping across the country in the late 1950s and early 1960s, that helped bring about passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill and 1965 Voting Rights Act, both of which began toppling the legal roadblocks that had inhibited black progress in the nation for so long.
Early in his presidential quest, Obama went to lengths to honor both the rhetorical and geographical landscapes of King’s life and legacy.
Just weeks after he announced his first presidential run in 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama ventured to the Brown Chapel in Selma, Ala.
In the annals of black history, Selma is unforgettable.
The church is where King in 1965 addressed civil rights groups that were working to register black voters. Their efforts were met with attacks by the Ku Klux Klan and actions by local law enforcement. King called it a “symbol of bitter-end resistance to the civil rights movement in the Deep South.”
On March 7, 1965, about 600 civil rights protesters — men, women and children — staged a march in Selma. They were viciously beaten and bloodied by Alabama state troopers. Some of the footage — ghastly and shocking — was shown on national television. It would come to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”
In 2007, standing inside Brown Chapel, Obama looked out across a congregation that included veterans of Bloody Sunday: “My very existence might not have been possible had it not been for some of the folks here today. . . . You see, my grandfather was a cook to the British in Kenya. Grew up in a small village, and all his life, that’s all he was — a cook and a houseboy. And that’s what they called him, even when he was 60 years old. They called him a houseboy. They wouldn’t call him by his last name. Call him by his first name. Sound familiar?”
Then, not long after his Selma appearance, Obama found himself inside the Dean Dome on the campus of the University of North Carolina. “I’m running because of what Dr. King called the fierce urgency of now,” he told that crowd, words he would repeat to other gatherings across the nation in succeeding weeks and months.
It also has hardly gone unnoticed that Obama has forged touching relationships with both Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Rev. Joseph Lowery, both of whom had been closely aligned with King during some of the most dangerous days of the movement.
Obama’s second inauguration comes in a season decorated with other cultural touchstones related to African American history. The nation is honoring the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. One of the more popular movies on screens has been the Steven Spielberg directed “Lincoln,” which chronicles the struggle to abolish slavery.
And in the late summer of 2011, the 30-foot Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial opened on the Mall. President Obama presided over the dedication ceremony.
“You can’t separate King’s 1963 speech from 1863,” said Jackson. “We’re all in a time line. The Barack dimension comes out of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1965 blacks couldn’t vote in the South. The 18-year-olds who went to Vietnam couldn’t vote. In 1984, when I ran the first time, Barack said he saw me debate at Columbia University. He said then he thought this — a black as president — could happen.”
In Jackson’s mind, the lives of King and Obama are inextricably linked. “King broke down the walls, and Barack ran across the bridge. The rocks from the broken walls created that bridge.”
Jackson is quick to point out that King’s reverential place in the America mindset was not always so. “King died the most hated man in America,” he said. “He had scars from being in jail, from being called unpatriotic. He was scarred. We were all scarred.”
Jackson points to the Obama accomplishments which make him feel most proud: The increase in Pell Grants for students, more people working than when Obama first came into office, the ending of the war in Iraq. But because Obama is in the White House, Jackson says it does not mask the concerns he still has.
“What we want is equality,” Jackson explains. “If you put a black as head of the NFL, well, that’s a position. But what makes the league work, why we’re so successful, is that the rules are public, the goals are clear and the score is transparent. We have a black in the White House, yes, but beneath, the playing field is uneven, the goals are not clear and the score is not transparent. The infrastructure enforcement is where justice comes from. You want justice from the bottom up. You want equality from the bottom up.”
Religious vs. political pulpits
Those who have studied the Obama-King dynamic note the differences in their occupations and their approaches.
King — educated in Atlanta and Boston — was practically raised in the pulpit of Southern churches. Politically, in an effort to reap the best rewards for his people, he sought to remain nonpartisan. He sought the ear of Republicans and Democrats. And he himself never ran for political office.
Obama parlayed his Chicago community activism into a political career – first the Illinois state senate, then U.S. Senate, then the presidency. Yet, the two are connected by the harrowing racial history in America.
“I’m going to pay Obama a compliment,” said Jackson. “I believe he dreams as big as Dr. King. I think the issue confronting him is how does he addresses this economic crisis with the poor. Lyndon Johnson was a good president. Then, presented with civil rights, he became a great president.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson, widely believed the second greatest president in regard to advancing civil rights after Lincoln, assigned a White House counsel named Clifford Alexander to be his liaison with King during the 1960s.
Alexander – who would go on to serve as secretary of the Army under President Jimmy Carter – has gotten to know Obama.
“Obama has a core to him,” said Alexander. “He is not in it to make money. He wants America to be a better place for all people. I knew King, and he wasn’t driven by money either.”
Another notable comparison linking the two men, says Alexander, is Obama’s empathy displayed on the national stage in times of crisis, such as during the aftermath of the shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn. “Martin had that skill,” says Alexander, recalling several Southern towns where King often arrived to preach after yet another civil rights figure had been murdered. “. . . There’s the evenness of temper. King had that, and Obama has that.”
But Alexander longs for Obama — as King did — to address issues of economic racial disparities. “Those are issues his administration hasn’t talked enough about.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who first made a name for herself in Mississippi during the “Freedom Summer,” believes there is another angle in which to view the Obama-King history.
“King was trying to change the country,” Holmes Norton said. “Non-violence was about bringing white people to accept black people as equals. Many will see today as a coincidence because of the confluence of King’s birthday and the inauguration. But for those who say look at how far blacks have come, I say, look at how far the country has come.”
King, she says, would be mighty happy with Obama being elected twice, but also with knowing that “people of color have become empowered.”
Recognizing his power
In his life, King recognized his moral powers. Those powers stretched into the hearts and minds of garbage men and hotel maids.
In trying to delineate Obama in the nostalgic mirror of King, Jones, the former King adviser and speechwriter who is also a visiting professor at Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, feels that Obama has often seemed too skittish about exercising political power.
There is an emotional moment in Spielberg’s “Lincoln” when that president, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, rises in a room surrounded by aides who have yet to corral the necessary votes for the constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. “I am the President of the United States of America, clothed in immense power!” Lincoln thunders. “You will procure me these votes.”) Obama needs some of that confrontational thunder, Jones says.
“The brother gives me concern,” Jones said. “Yes, he studies Lincoln. But he needs to study Lyndon Johnson, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Shirley Chisolm. He needs to study people who had no reservations about taking names and kicking [expletive].”