In one of the final moments of formal indoor Inauguration activities on Monday, President Barack Obama paused in front of a bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stationed in the capitol rotunda.
Few who watched Monday’s events could have missed the symmetry and symbolism of the nation’s first black president taking the oath of office on the only federal holiday set aside to acknowledge the civic contributions of another African-American, King. But as Obama delivered his second and final inaugural speech Monday -- what CNN senior political analyst David Gergen described live on the air as an address declaring “equality of opportunity” and “the essential American dream” that planted the president “squarely in the tradition of Martin Luther King,” – Obama put on display some of the ways in which his own life experiences and political philosophy converge with and diverge widely from those of King.
“Unfortunately, in the decades since King’s death, we have sanitized, simplified nearly beyond recognition and neutered his ideas,” said the Rev. William Lamar, who leads the Turner Memorial African-American Methodist Episcopal Church in Maryland and is a director of the Foundations of Christian Leadership Program at Duke University’s Divinity School in North Carolina.
“We have essentially made him [King] a nice Negro who brings us toys in January who tells us that we are a colorblind society. This is a man who talked about injustice and inadequate housing and health care and public education. This is a man who decried what he called the ‘homegrown terrorism,’ of segregationists and who above all things, called on this country to live up to its ideals. I think there are many of us who hope that President Obama will shape the next four years in that vein.”
Near the end of his life, King, an avowed pacifist, took the unpopular stance of opposing the Vietnam War. He called for reforms to the draft and wanted greater government investment in public infrastructure, health care, quality education and universal voting rights. King also called on the government to help reduce poverty.
King embraced the struggles of low-wage workers and those living in substandard housing. He saw a straight line between low-quality education for children, limited economic opportunities for these same children later in life, and the nation’s decision to invest and engage in military conflicts. He predicted that the country’s tendency to think of itself as the world’s chief educator and police officer would help to fuel civil wars in Africa, Asia and Latin America, while zapping much-needed resources for domestic improvements.
“[Because of] our failure to really deal with economic exploitation...I do feel that we are on the wrong side of the world revolution,” King said in a series of interviews conducted by the late Canadian journalist Eleanor Fischer between 1961 and 1967 and made publicly available for the first time this month by New York’s NPR station, WNYC – FM.
“We are not here to police the world. We have neither the moral, the physical nor the economic resources to patrol the world. We have the economic resources to revive the world. And, if we would see that, I think we would take a new course of action altogether. And, we can be a major force in bringing into being … [a] revolution of values.”
You can listen to the entire 1966 and 1967 interview here:
The WNYC tapes also reveal ways in which Obama and King’s lives might have further converged if an assassin had not prematurely taken King’s. While talking about the fact that both the Republican and Democratic parties included elected officials who supported the Vietnam War and growing militarism, King casually mentioned one idea that until 2008 had seemed unimaginable and another that has still not yet come to fruition.
“Some have even gone to the point of talking to me about forming such a third force or third party and running for President,” King said. “First, I have no presidential desires and I have no desire to engage in partisan politics, so that would almost negate that altogether. I feel though, that a maybe a third force is needed now ... So I would not oppose a third party. I think it would bring a new dimension to our country that we desperately need.”
Approaching what is likely the final chapter of his political career on Monday, Obama saluted the importance of peace and an end to the idea of “perpetual war.” He called for help building a country where opportunity and equal treatment are realities for people of color, women, gay Americans, the poor and those struck by unforeseeable tragedy.
Obama is also a president who stood at the inaugural podium after a first term during which the United States deployed unmanned drones against its enemies. Obama counts tracking and killing Osama bin Laden among his administration's chief accomplishments. His administration deported a record number of undocumented immigrants. And, after inheriting the deepest recession since the Great Depression, under President Obama the share of Americans living in poverty rose.
In his speech, Obama endorsed the occasional necessity of both ideological and physical war. He described what he sees as the essential role of government and regulation in a free market, and the necessity of a social safety net, immigration reform and expanded environmental protections.
“What makes us exceptional — what makes us American — is our allegiance to an idea," Obama said, "articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing.”