The contrasting Legacies of Martin Luther King and President Barack Obama
There are some things that only history can decide. In the next fifty years it may very well turn out that the election of Barack Obama will equal or surpass the legacy of Martin Luther King. However, anyone that compares the two of them today is making a grave mistake. Martin Luther King was an activist prophet. On the other hand, President Barack Obama is a skilled politician. To understand the contrast, one must look closely at their lives.
The real Martin Luther King was a complicated man. He was both a radical and a pragmatist. Most importantly he was a prophet. He clearly understood the situation American blacks were facing. That’s the pragmatist. But he knew that change was possible. That’s the radical. He also saw the civil rights struggle in a larger context. He understood the challenges facing blacks extended to all people living in poverty and facing injustice. Thus his fight extended to women, gays, veterans, immigrants, and laborers of every color, etc.
King was an unlikely martyr to begin with. In the early beginnings of the movement, King was focused on shepherding his church. However once he got involved, his greatness surfaced. As he ascended as a civil rights voice, he led hundreds of thousands to take action against racism, to end poverty, and to strive for peace.
Back in December 1955, he led the first major non-violent protests of African-Americans in Montgomery, Alabama. It was a bus boycott that lasted 382 days and ended after the US Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public buses was unconstitutional. In spring 1963, he led a student movement that organized mass demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. The all white police officers beat him and the students. This led to one of many King arrests. Although his arrest was unfortunate, it was from that Birmingham cell that he wrote the now famous ‘Letter From The Birmingham Jail’. As a true visionary he puts the struggle against injustice in Birmingham in the broader context. He writes: “Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
In the famous “I Have A Dream” speech, the prophet was in full bloom. He writes “…when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
King’s legacy in life, speeches and writings contain clear messages for everyone who wants to work towards justice, peace and personal dignity. This is his legacy.
In contrast, America’s first Black President, Barack Obama traveled a completely different journey to greatness. This man from Illinois, born in Hawaii is no Martin Luther King Jr. But that’s a good thing! Each has contributed to the lives of the disenfranchised in their own way.
To understand President Barack Obama one must go back…way back…before he ever enjoyed national prominence.
Barack Obama was raised by a single white mother and his white grandparents. He wasn’t rich and he didn’t have a typical American name. His father Barack Obama, Sr. loved him, but didn’t’ raise him. Therefore, he didn’t have the benefit of male guidance like many minority children today. Girded with his Midwestern upbringing, this child of interracial love set out to seize the American dream for himself. With a combination of student loans and hard work he put himself through school. He admittedly made mistakes growing up but he possessed enough inner drive to stay the course. Obama is a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he was the first Black President of the Harvard Law Review.
After college, he worked for Christian churches in Chicago, helping communities as an organizer and activist. During that time, he had many successes, like a widely touted voter registration drive in Chicago urban communities. He then went on to teach constitutional law in Chicago and remained active in his community. This led him to become a civil rights attorney in Chicago. His skills and talents as a lawyer were evident. He could have worked at any law firm of choice. However, he felt compelled to serve. This drive led him to the Illinois Legislature. After several years and many legislative successes, Barack campaigned and got elected as the State Senator. The rest is history…
So what is the contrast?
One led the civil rights struggle which gave birth to the America that exists today. The latter, seized the fruits of the struggle and broke the last remaining barrier.
Both men are equally important. But don’t confuse the two. Martin Luther King Jr. is still the father of all our liberties while President Barack Obama is the faithful son who stood on the shoulders of greatness and charted a new course for all of us. Because of President Obama we all know that anything is possible. But because of Martin Luther King, we were free to dream about the impossible in the first place.
To learn more of the contrast between these two great African American leaders, please watch: The Tavis Smiley PBS Special, titled “MLK: A Call to Conscience” on March 31 at 8pm/7pm Central on PBS.