As he stands - literally - in the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr. on Wednesday to commemorate the movement that paved the way to his
presidency, President Barack Obama faces the unique challenge of paying
tribute to King's vision without the urgent focus on racial
discrimination that motivated the original March on Washington.
president is the president. He's not a civil rights leader, " Rep. John
Lewis, the only living speaker from the 1963 march said Sunday.
"There's a difference."
Obama's presidency - after five years and
two decisive elections - is a self-evident tribute to the realization
of King's "I Have a Dream" speech. But his job title also means that
he's charged with separating his own identity from the task of improving
the lives of all Americans, creating a balancing act as he prepares to
deliver an anticipated address from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial
marking the anniversary of the march.
"His message has to be
about policy and his priorities about moving this country forward and
lifting all boats through his efforts," said Terry Edmonds, former chief
speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and the first African-American
to hold that position.
And the president seems poised to do just that.
an interview with radio host Tom Joyner, Obama said that he believes
King would be "amazed" by the progress that the country has made in
breaking down barriers to social progress.
"What he would also
say, though, is that the March on Washington was about jobs and
justice," Obama added. "And that when it comes to the economy, when it
comes to inequality, when it comes to wealth, when it comes to the
challenges that inner cities experience, he would say that we have not
made as much progress as the civil and social progress that we've made."
supporters say that message is the best way for Obama to commemorate an
event fully billed as a "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."
of [King's] vision has been realized if you look at things in a social
way; those social barriers by and large have been knocked down, but the
economic barriers that he said we needed to move to next are still
there," Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., told NBC News. "I would hope that the
president's speech will be the carrying of the baton that he's been
handed by King. He should use the speech as his leg of this race."
past messages to predominantly black audiences have frequently
referenced institutional barriers to success as the "legacy of
discrimination," citing poverty and educational inequality as new
challenges for the black community.
And Obama has indicated
that will be at least part of his message Wednesday. In a town hall
event last Friday, the president was asked about the role of education
in civil rights.
"Well, 50 years after the March on Washington
and the 'I Have a Dream Speech' obviously we've made enormous strides,"
the president said. "I'm a testament to it."
wonderful to watch is that the younger generation seems - each
generation seems wiser in terms of wanting to treat people fairly and do
the right thing and not discriminate," Obama continued. "And that's a
great victory that we should all be very proud of. On the other hand, I
think what we've also seen is that the legacy of discrimination -
slavery, Jim Crow - has meant that some of the institutional barriers
for success for a lot of groups still exist. African-American poverty in
this country is still significantly higher than other groups," he
But the president has also often delivered a message of
tough love, urging more responsible parenting and the eschewing of
"excuses" based on race.
"Whatever hardships you may experience
because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous
generations endured - and overcame," he told students at King's alma
mater, Morehouse College, this spring.
commemoration of the famed speech comes at a time when Obama's racial
identity is still fodder for discussion even after more than five years
in office and two successful elections.
While Obama has addressed
issues of race rarely, the times when he has spoken directly about
racial divisions have prompted the accusation that he's exacerbated -
rather than bridged - those gulfs.
After he offered a deeply
personal response to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida,
opponents said he went too far by "siding" with the family of the slain
teen by saying "if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."
Post columnist Kathleen Parker suggested earlier last week that Obama's
identification with Martin may have "nourish[ed] the killing passions"
of the black youths who randomly shot and killed a white Australian
baseball player in Oklahoma.
He faced similar outcry after he
said that Cambridge, Mass., police "acted stupidly" when arresting
African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. for disorderly conduct in
2009. (Obama said later that he "could've calibrated those words
David Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of
Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference, says that Obama - even at a moment so steeped in
the nation's racial history - is typically reluctant to spotlight his
"The White House's attitude is that everybody in
America who's black knows that he's the first black president," he said.
"Black America doesn't need to be reminded. And, simultaneously, with
much of white America, reminding them that Obama is black is not
necessarily a positive."
Edmonds says Obama faces a unique challenge that Clinton did not - despite his high popularity in the black community.
wasn't at risk of criticism for "being too deferential to the
African-American community," Edmunds said. "President Obama has that
Mindful that comparisons will inevitably be made
between his remarks on Wednesday and King's famous speech, Obama made
sure to set expectations for his own address a bit lower.
just say for the record right now, it won't be as good as the speech 50
years ago," Obama joked. "I just want to get that out there early."