Inauguration Will Cement Obama-MLK Ties
FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2009, file photo, Barack Obama, left, takes the oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts, not seen, as his wife Michelle, holds the Lincoln Bible and daughters Sasha, right and Malia, watch at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Obama's second inauguration is shaping up as a high-energy celebration smaller than his first milestone swearing-in, yet still designed to mark his unprecedented role in American history with plenty of eye-catching glamour. A long list of celebrity performers will give the once-every-four years right of democratic passage the air of a star-studded concert, from the bunting-draped Capitol's west front of the Capitol, where Obama takes the oath Jan. 21, to the Washington Convention Center, which is expected to be packed with 40,000 ball-goers that evening. (AP Photo/Chuck Kennedy, Pool)
President Obama, with the nation and world watching, will share his Inauguration Day spotlight with a Baptist preacher from Georgia who launched a moral crusade six decades ago to wrest America from its Jim Crow laws.
Future generations may mull the divine meaning of Obama’s celebration and pageantry taking place on the very day set aside to honor Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader gunned down on a Memphis hotel balcony in 1968.
“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.
The Obama-King moment is already imbued with a palpable resonance. “It is all so very deep to me,” said Clarence Jones, who helped King draft his luminous “I Have a Dream” speech that was delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. That is at the opposite end of the National Mall from the U.S Capitol, where Obama will deliver his second inaugural address Monday.
In the days leading up to Obama’s second 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. “It is magical,” he says of the confluence of events.
Nearly 45 years after his death, King remains the lodestar when it comes to the great political causes launched inside the United States.
It was his nonviolent movement, sweeping across the country in the late 1950s and early 1960s, that helped spark 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. 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 Obama has often seemed too skittish about exercising political power.
“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 a--.”