Obama: Standing in the Shadow of MLK

Can the president's speech to celebrate King's iconic moment live up to all the great expectations?

Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama (Wikimedia Commons)
Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama (Wikimedia Commons)

(The Root) — In my grandmother’s Arkansas home hangs a portrait of President Barack Obama with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the portrait has written beneath the two men “We Have a Dream; the Dream Has Come True.”

It was one of many paintings, posters, buttons, T-shirts and other products that came out in 2008 during Obama’s historic election, tying the election back to King and his historic “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in 1963.

Some felt the comparisons were premature, even inaccurate, but many simply did not care. The idea of a black president once seemed like a dream, but now it was realized. Expectations for Obama were high, but what we received after 2008 was a president often stymied by a gridlocked Congress, and a voice constrained by being the president of all and not some.

Yet the comparison with King and that portrait in my grandmother’s home remains.

On Wednesday Obama will be stepping into the oversized shoes of history when he speaks at the commemoration celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. He will be giving a speech in the looming shadow of the one that came 50 years before — King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the greatest speeches in American history.

It’s a nice bookend — the march in 1963 and the first African-American president in 2013, coming together to create history on top of history — and I’m sure the president is feeling it. Feeling both the great expectations he has for himself and the expectations of others for this speech.

I don’t envy him. People are expecting a speech that will define something, say something, mean something about what it was then and what it is now. And Obama is a great speaker. But now, as with those roadside portraits of him and King, he has to try to live up to an expectation — that there is something between the slain activist and the former community organizer-turned-“leader of the free world.” That there is something that binds them besides color and maleness and symbolism. That there is something that warrants their sharing the same poster space, the same stage in front of the Lincoln Memorial.