Fifty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed a dream where his children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. In an America where atrocities against African Americans were a regular occurrence, and segregation limited blacks to second-class citizenship, King's dream seemed just that -- a wild fancy, or mere hope.
But in 2008, when the country elected Barack Obama as its first black president, it seemed America had finally gotten to a place where reputation mattered more than race. Although he was not present at the March On Washington, Obama's election was the single biggest contribution to the civil rights fight in the U.S.
The president's standing in the shadow of King's legacy is a heavy burden to bear, and in the last five years, he has inevitably fallen short of the somewhat messianic expectations placed on him. But despite being his most supportive and unwavering constituency, African Americans have borne the brunt of Obama's shortfalls and remained at the bottom of the totem pole in many of the areas that made up Obama's 2008 campaign base: economy, health care and education. So as he takes his place in front of the Lincoln Memorial, standing on the shoulders of those who demanded equality 50 years ago, many blacks are wondering how much has actually changed.
In a new Pew Research Center poll, only one out of four African Americans said the black community's situation had improved during Obama's tenure, and one in five said things have gotten worse. A quick look at the numbers reveals that while many strides have been made, there's still so much left to be done.
In 2008, 12.7 percent of blacks faced unemployment compared to 7.1 percent of whites. That number peaked in 2012, when the 14.1 percent of black joblessness nearly doubled the 7.1 percent among whites. Today, while white unemployment is at 6.6 percent, a slight dip from its 2008 number, the rate for blacks is at 12.6 percent -- still nearly double, and hardly changed from when Obama stepped into the White House five years ago.
During his 2008 campaign, Obama made many promises about fixing the economy. While he's kept many, the black community has oftentimes been the last to feel that change. And although the racial employment gap precedes his tenure, the weight of joblessness has made African Americans the majority of those living in poverty today -- 27.6 percent of the nation's poor, despite only making up 13 percent of the population.
As a result, black neighborhoods are often disproportionately plagued by high levels of poverty and violence, sub-par public schools and limited access to adequate health care, perpetuating a stubborn cycle of socio-economic struggle. In 2008, Obama's message of hope seemed to be the solution to these problems, with his plans for an increased minimum wage, tax relief for low-income workers, education reform and affordable health care. But five years later, disparities still remain, with blacks trailing behind in high school graduation rates, a 13 percent gap in college graduation rates compared to whites and a large portion of African Americans without health insurance.
While Obama can in no way be held completely responsible for these disparities, the promises he hoped to fulfill during his presidency and its juxtaposition to King's dream place him between a rock and a hard place. As the quintessential embodiment of black progress, he has been charged with fighting institutional inequities that existed long before he was born. However, his election was largely based on his vow to fight for a community whose progress has remained slightly stagnant since he took office.
In 2011, Obama challenged the black community to continue its fight with him as its leader, and replace complacency and complaint with proactive participation.
“I expect all of you to march with me and press on,” he said. “Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying.”
And despite criticism of these kinds of comments, black voters turned out in record numbers to help Obama achieve a second term. But as the community assesses its progress at this historic juncture, the question remains of what he has done for a constituency that has stuck by him through thick and thin.
"The great majority of African-Americans have shown patience, stuck with Obama even through this terrible recession, recognizing the real limits within which he has to operate," Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy told ABC News. "They have bitten their tongue, not out of complacency, but out of a real, mature grasp of the difficulty he had to face."
But despite general support in the community, the president's critics question whether or not he is indeed the appropriate symbol of the civil rights movement.
"What allows President Obama to so readily address this 50th anniversary celebration is the fact that King is now a dead martyr," Tavis Smiley wrote in a recent op-ed for USA Today. "Otherwise, like Kennedy, Obama might also be mired in anguished soul-searching about whether to share the podium with a man who would undoubtedly be espousing uncomfortable and inconvenient truths."
Although the numbers are tough to read, they don't tell the full story of black progress. Obama's mere existence is a symbol of what so many fought for 50 years ago. But is his emblematic presence enough to override the statistics? The answer to that question is quite complex. Today, nearly 50 years to the minute of the moment King shook the country out of its slumber, Obama stands as the embodiment of the achievement of the dream, and a symbol of a step in the right direction. However, the journey toward true equality in a country plagued by years of struggle continues.
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