On the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream speech,” President Barack Obama is set to address the nation at the Lincoln Memorial.
President Obama is, as we know, the first black president — and 50 years after the March on Washington during which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. uttered the words that became a part of living modern history, black leaders and scholars reflect on the Commander-in-Chief’s torch carrying abilities.
While Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke off the cuff, saying “I have a dream” off-script and inadvertently giving what is often called the best speech of the century, he left big shoes to fill for the man now occupying the Oval Office.
Obama is forced to walk a thin, thin line as America’s first black president, often falling afoul of long-held racial prejudices and still in some ways not immune to the struggle a black man faces in a very white Washington.
It’s not just traditionally white caucuses that challenge Obama’s leadership choices, and civil rights leader Al Sharpton reflected on how the President balances being a black man and being the President in contrast to what Dr. King did for America’s black citizens.
Sharpton told the New York Times he wouldn’t compare Obama to King, but to Kennedy — another friend to the movement during King’s advocacy, but not a direct leader:
In the African-American community and in the media they project him as the new Martin Luther King. But he’s the new John Kennedy. A president shouldn’t dream. A president should legislate and guide.”
Not everyone is so upbeat on Obama’s record thus far as the anniversary of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech is marked today. Radio host Tavis Smiley told the paper that the President has fallen far short of the bar set by King, musing:
“If you’re not going to address racism, if you’re not going to address poverty, if you’re not going to address militarism, if you’re going to dance around all three of them, then you’re not doing justice to Dr. King, and you might as well stay home.”
But as Obama speaks on King’s “I Have A Dream” anniversary, others say that the President has made one meaningful change in recent weeks, speaking more and more openly about what it means to be a black American.