King, Obama, And The Great American Dialogue


My return to the National Mall provided many visible indications of the changes that have occurred since 1963. On the eve of the inauguration, I found an opportunity to stand on the front steps of the Lincoln Memorial, near the plaque marking where King spoke of his dream. The Reflecting Pool was covered with ice—a marked contrast with the hot, humid August afternoon I remembered. The Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol look much the same as before, but in 1963 those of us at the Memorial felt distant from the seat of federal power, where a mostly white Congress (there were then only five black representatives among 535 congressmen and senators) would decide the fate of pending civil rights legislation. Forty-five years later, many who had demonstrated at the Lincoln Memorial were now seated on the steps of the Capitol watching a black man become president.

I then walked past the Korean War Veterans Memorial and crossed Independence Avenue to reach the Tidal Basin, where a King National Memorial will soon be built. As a member of the memorial’s design team, I was familiar with the site and had suggested that it could give substance to King’s Dream speech by featuring a “Stone of Hope” hewn out of a “Mountain of Despair.” Aligned to face the Jefferson Memorial, the stone will be engraved with King’s image and the text of his “promissory note,” thus depicting King and the Virginia slave owner who wrote the world’s most famous statement of the ideal of equality engaged in a perpetual symbolic dialogue about how “to make real the promises of democracy.”

I suspect that King would remind the new president that many of his dreams remain unrealized.

Perhaps because my visit to the King Memorial site was still fresh in my memory, I listened to Obama’s inaugural address while imagining what an 80-year-old King would make of his young admirer’s oratory. He would undoubtedly have appreciated Obama’s understanding of the rhetorical power of America’s traditional ideals, but King would also have recognized that his role as a civil rights leader was quite different from Obama’s role as a politician. King, like Obama, sought national unity, but he also used his dream oration to “remind America of the fierce urgency of now” While he offered the promise of racial brotherhood, he also warned, “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.”

Obama’s understanding of American history parallels King’s, but the new president is less willing than King to see social conflict as an inevitable part of the struggle for justice. Lincoln rather than Jefferson serves as his dominant point of reference. Obama’s inaugural address urged that Americans return to the values of the past, remaining “faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents,” while King was a sometimes disruptive harbinger of the future. I suspect that King would remind the new president that many of his dreams remain unrealized. As Obama charts a course for the nation, he might well remember the great speeches King gave after 1963, as when he advocated in 1967 “a radical revolution of values” that would transform the nation “from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society” King’s elation over Obama’s election would be balanced against his conviction that the United States must recapture its “revolutionary spirit” and “go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

Those of us who learned so much from King can only hope that Obama will someday be able to visit the King Memorial and listen to King’s mighty cadence not only as he spoke of his Dream but also in the more pessimistic moments of his final years. Meanwhile, we can take delight and satisfaction in Obama’s historically informed oratory, which reveals that he, like King, will be a profound participant in the enduring debate about the meaning of American democracy.