Saturday, January 17, 2009

Obama bears heavy burden of advancing King's dream

(Originally published 1/17/09)

Every presidential inauguration is an historic event.

But Tuesday offers us history-plus, if that's possible, in a chance to bear eyewitness to an event that millions in this country never dared to imagine: A black American sworn into the presidency.

History has an interesting way of weaving things together. Barack Obama's inauguration will take place the day after the United States celebrates the 80th anniversary of the birth of its foremost civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Race will figure prominently in events throughout inauguration weekend. There will be no end to the comparisons between Obama and President Abraham Lincoln and even to King himself.

Obama won't shy from these comparisons: He'll swear in on the Bible that Lincoln used to take the oath of office and will likely borrow from King, as he did during the campaign, by invoking "the fierce urgency of now."

Just about every journalist with a microphone or a laptop will gush about how President Obama is living proof of how far we’ve come on race relations in this country.

Yes, Obama's election is progress. But a black president is not in itself the embodiment of King’s dream.

On a sweltering August day in 1963, King told 250,000 Americans gathered on the Washington Mall about his dream for this country. In equal parts eloquence and passion, he described a nation where citizens of every color could live and work side by side; where character, not color, mattered; where social justice thrived and where no one is left "languishing in the corners of American society."

Yes, the new president is surely incontrovertible evidence that the down payments of blood that were paid on a bridge in Selma and in the streets of Birmingham and in jail cells and busses and schools all across the South are paying their dividends of equality.

But in looking at the country itself, we find new barriers –- social and cultural lines that have been drawn since King's speech –- that are incontrovertible evidence that his dream remains unrealized.

King dreamed of a homogenous culture even in the face of racial diversity. He dreamed that one day, race would dissipate, then disappear altogether, as a driving factor in American culture –- even he supported race-conscious social policies like affirmative action as a means to achieve that end.

I often wonder what MLK would have thought of our culture today. I like to think he would have concerned himself a lot more with the social realities of black Americans than how many black Americans coach college football teams.

Obama's candidacy exposed the uncomfortable racial divide that continues to persist in America. He gave a powerful and poignant speech about it back in April, when white Americans struggled with what to make of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

On Tuesday, Obama will take his place in the landscape of King's dream, but that dream will remain unfulfilled. As the scaffolding and bunting come down, and as cherry blossoms bloom and winter returns and midterms advance and Obama begins to run for re-election, it will fall to him to set an example and pursue public policies that will move that dream toward reality.

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