King, Obama, And The Great American Dialogue


Obama is hardly alone among American politicians in his use of King quotes, yet his connection to the oratory of the slain civil rights leader goes deeper. He shares the historical awareness that enabled King to address contemporary issues in the context of the timeless, shared ideals of all Americans. Although King’s formative experiences in black Atlanta differed markedly from Obama’s more exotic childhood, both men recognized that the destiny of black Americans was inextricably entwined with that of other Americans.

Pres. Barack Obama

Both participated in a continuing oratorical dialogue about the American dream of a diverse nation unified by its traditional democratic, egalitarian ideals. Both leaders appreciated the crucial importance of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as sources of guidance in the task of building “a more perfect union.” And each drew rhetorical inspiration from Abraham Lincoln—the president who most cogently expressed the nation’s struggle to unify itself on the basis of its traditional ideals.


Obama’s indebtedness to King became clear to me in January 2008, two months before the Philadelphia speech, when I heard him preach the King Holiday sermon at Ebenezer Baptist, the Atlanta church where King had once served as his father’s co-pastor. Speaking to a predominantly black audience, Obama provided many reminders of King’s ability to fitse religious inspiration with political insight; yet he simultaneously set himself apart from King’s generation of black leaders. Embodying a new style of visionary leadership, Obama did not speak as a black Moses mobilizing African Americans to combat racial oppression. Instead he invoked the story of Joshua’s conquest of Jericho in urging black Americans to support his quest for transracial unity: “the great need of this hour, not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country” He urged black Americans to acknowledge their own responsibility to overcome the nation’s divisions:

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.

Obama’s inspiring sermon at Ebenezer made clear that his roots lay not in the black church that served as an institutional base for the modern black freedom struggle, but in the racially integrated American society that King had struggled to bring into existence. Obama’s message was tailored to the religious setting, but his preaching style displayed little of King’s southern cadence and metaphorical richness; instead his vaguely midwestern plainspokenness reflected the influence of his white mother and grandparents.

Despite these differences, the fundamental similarity of their historical roles became clear: King, the most influential black leader of his generation, aspired to become a transracial moral leader; Obama became the most influential black leader of his generation as a result of his remarkable success as a transracial political leader. Obama draws inspiration from King as he confronts the fundamental task that has always perplexed Americans: forging unity from diversity.

Clearly Mama speaks for a generation that understands King not as the controversial dissenter we saw in the flesh at the March on Washington but as the revered national icon he would become after his assassination in 1968. A measure of the transformation of American national consciousness since King’s death was Obama’s confidence that Americans of all races would accept his linkage of King with “that American spirit, that American promise, that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences.” Those who had gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 to “hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream,” he observed, “could’ve heard words of anger and discord” or “been told to succumb to the fear and frustration of so many dreams deferred.” Instead, “people of every creed and color, from every walk of life” heard “that in America, our destiny is inextricably linked. That together, our dreams can be one.”