WASHINGTON — Fifty years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed his dream of freedom and equality from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the first African-American president will stand in his place to celebrate that mountaintop moment.
But the way President Barack Obama will do so says much about his relationship with the civil rights struggle that cleared the way for his election. He did not join tens of thousands of protesters who marched for progressive causes Saturday.
Instead, he will speak Wednesday, the actual anniversary, at a polished commemoration event, joined by Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, as well as Oprah Winfrey.
At times, Obama has placed himself firmly within the movement’s ranks and, at other times, drawn subtle distinctions. He has acknowledged his debt to civil rights leaders – King most of all – but has resisted the label of black politician. His speech will put this complex and shifting relationship under a glaring spotlight.
The president has suggested he will emphasize opportunity for all, not the unfinished work of the movement to end discrimination against black Americans. “Unfortunately, we’ve got a politics sometimes that divides instead of bringing people together,” Obama said last week. “That, I think, is something that we have to constantly struggle against, whether we’re black or white or whatever color we are.”
Obama was not invited to Saturday’s event, just as “Kennedy was not invited to the march 50 years ago,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said. The longtime activist and march organizer said Obama’s role in the movement is clear: “He’s the new Kennedy, not the new King.”
Still, comparisons between the two most recognized black leaders in U.S. history are inevitable.
Obama has written that he believes his 2004 address at the Democratic National Convention resonated because it reminded people of King’s hope for a future when children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
“There is not a black America and a white America,” Obama said, “there’s the United States of America.”
His mind-set differs from King’s because he comes from a different culture, one movement elder said.
“The culture of the civil rights movement was to improve the lives of black Americans, to do away with segregation, to get the right to vote, and to do what was necessary to achieve that,” said Diane Nash, a Chicago civil rights leader honored at the original march. “I think that President Obama came out of an entirely different culture, that of a politician.”
Obama was a step removed from the civil rights movement from the start. The son of an African father and a white American mother, he was 2 years old when King spoke on the mall. He was 7 and living in Indonesia when King was assassinated.
Obama’s early education in the civil rights movement came from his mother, who played recordings of King’s speeches and told him epic stories of the “special destiny” of African-Americans, he wrote in his memoir, “Dreams From My Father.”
But early in his career as a community organizer, Obama felt the movement had failed to live up to that inheritance. In his memoir, he described “imagining myself standing at the edge of the Lincoln Memorial and looking out over an empty pavilion.”
He settled on politics, but sought to establish his ties to the movement.
As a candidate for president in 2007, Obama spoke at the memorial to the 1965 marches in Selma, Ala., and declared that he was a descendant of the civil rights movement. Selma, he said, had inspired his grandfather to send Obama’s father to the United States, where he met Obama’s mother, whose ancestors were slaveholders.
“There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Ala., because some folks are willing to march across a bridge,” he said. “So they got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born. So don’t tell me I don’t have a claim on Selma, Ala. Don’t tell me I’m not coming home to Selma, Ala. I’m here because somebody marched.”
Obama was born four years before the Selma marches, observers quickly noted. His campaign said he was speaking about the movement in general.
Obama has taken other political and poetic license with King and his legacy.
Since his election to the White House, he has cast King as an Obama-style compromiser, a label few King experts accept. In his speech, King praised the “marvelous new militancy” of the movement and argued against “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
At the dedication of the King memorial in Washington in October 2011, while Occupy Wall Street protests railed against Obama’s cozy relationship with corporate America, Obama emphasized King’s desire to “heal rather than wound.”
“If he were alive today,” Obama ventured, “I believe he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there; that the businessman can enter tough negotiations with his company’s union without vilifying the right to collectively bargain.” The words show Obama in the middle, trying to explain each side to the other – not a role King staked out at the march or anywhere else.
King spoke explicitly about race as a root cause of problems, said historian Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning King biographer.
Obama keeps a framed program from the March on Washington for Jobs and Economic Freedom in the Oval Office, and notes that the event focused not only on racial justice but appealed across racial boundaries in its call for full employment.
When Obama talks about economic justice, Branch said, he’s sidestepping the role race plays.
“It’s a safer way of talking about race,” Branch said. “King was talking about race explicitly every day.”