Barack Obama Isn’t Martin Luther King Jr. and that’s A Great Thing


Well, the President is the president. He’s not a civil rights leader. There’s a difference. President Johnson, President Kennedy sat with us from time to time. When I met with President Kennedy and later President Johnson, part of the so-called Big Six, they would say make me do it, make me say yes when I may have a desire to no, create the climate, create the environment. It is left up to the civil rights community to get out there and push and pull. – Rep. John Lewis

This week we commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and reflect on Dr. Martin Luther King’s Jr. I Have a Dream speech. Dr. King’s “Dream” is yet to be fully realized, but we have come a long ways over the last 50 years and still have a ways to go.

President Obama will commemorate the Anniversary by speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial like King did 50 years ago. Since taking office, Obama has been routinely criticized for not doing enough to bring about social change.

One of the president’s most persistent critics (for mainly personal reasons) has been Tavis Smiley. Smiley recently said this of Obama commemorating the March on Washington:

“… what allows President Obama to so readily address this 50th anniversary celebration is the fact that King is now a dead martyr. Otherwise, like Kennedy, Obama might also be mired in anguished soul-searching about whether to share the podium with a man who would undoubtedly be espousing uncomfortable and inconvenient truths.”

Tavis is boldly making the assumption that if Martin Luther King Jr. was alive today, President Obama would be hesitant to support him publicly.

Tavis went on to say:

“The unsettling truth is that during the Obama era, black America has fallen even further behind. The African American unemployment rate, for instance, remains stubbornly and disproportionately high at 12.6 percent, compared with the national rate of 7.4 percent. And while private-sector jobs are experiencing a slight uptick, the lack of public-sector jobs is suffocating black livelihoods. Sadly, a few black chief executives notwithstanding, race still matters in the private sector. Education is not the great equalizer. I know too many black Ivy League graduates whose degrees cannot close this gap, and heaven help you if you’re applying for a private-sector job with a “black-sounding” name. Researchers have found that these applicants receive up to 50 percent fewer callbacks than applicants with “white-sounding” names.”

“But if Obama is to be transformational and not just transactional, a statesman and not just another politician, a thermostat and not just a thermometer, then it’s time for him to use his power to help regulate the temperature of our society and not just settle for recording the temperature of public opinion. It’s time to take some risks. To stop playing it safe in the second term. To tell the truth about the suffering in America that’s being rendered invisible simply because we choose not to see it.”

Now, I like many of President Obama’s critics would like him to be more vocal on issues of race, in the manner he was following the Trayvon Martin verdict when he said:

“And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the greatest freedom fighters who ever lived! His name belongs in the pantheon of great men such as Ghandi, Mandela, and Lincoln. King was a fearless visionary that sacrificed his life for the idea of equality and justice. King was a Civil Rights leader, not a politician. King help lead a movement that led politicians to act which is why we have the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. Obama is a politician, not a Civil Rights leader. His presence in the White House is a result of the Civil Rights Movement, but social justice and equality will not be met by President Obama marching in the streets, King’s Dream won’t be fully realized until we engage civically and demand change.

It is too easy to say, Obama needs to do x, y, and z, while asking nothing of ourselves. Change comes from the bottom up, not the top down. Barack Obama isn’t Martin Luther King Jr. and that’s a great thing because that means it is up to us to Dream and bring about the change we wish to see.


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