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Peter J Burns Headshot

Kennedy, King and Now Obama

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As Barack Obama took his stage, no longer a shrewd candidate but a victorious President-Elect, we could see him for all he truly is, not just that which he has projected over the past 22 months. We could clearly see for the first time a man walking in the shadow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Of course we have all recognized him as that, and we all talked about it. But it wasn't how he was defined during the campaign. It couldn't be or he never would have taken that stage in Grant Park victorious, and there never would have been a crowd of 200,000 elated to the point of tears. He couldn't be just an African-American candidate running on the platform of equality and human dignity. As noble and necessary and natural as those truths are, they are not the only issues that define Barack Obama. He is not just an African-American, but he is an African-American. He is not just a White-American, but he is white. After his speech in Chicago, the pundits vacillated between the terms "African-American" and "Biracial". Like America, there is no one term to describe who we are. Can he be both? Like Walter White, champion of the NAACP and an unquestionably courageous hero, Obama walks in two worlds. As a result he knows blacks and whites in ways we can never truly know ourselves.

Obama is in essence the best of all of us. That is not to detract from the moment when, as a victor, when the race was finally won, that he could openly embrace, as a black man, the mantle of Dr. King. Like King, he has bigger aspirations than racial equality. King saw racial equality as natural state, made unnatural by the decree of man. Racial equality is a foregone conclusion, if we don't hinder it. We were all mixed up about it, but it would come to be, as directed by Nature, as dictated by God. And so that equality was part of his focus. He also focused on issues affecting all: poverty and healthcare and unemployment. These are the issues that cross the color lines. King recognized that poverty did not discriminate, as wealth does. These are the issues that made King not just a leader of the African-American community, but of an entire nation struggling for better lives. These are the issues that made him not a only a Racial-Rights leader but a Civil Rights leader.

It is easy to want paint him with a specific brush. But he requires a complex palette, because he took on all the complex issues not just the most obvious and shameful. He said, "We will not be satisfied until 'justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.'" This is as true of our national revulsion to racism as it is to our national revulsion to corporate greed or rape. King didn't just march only so that blacks could sit in better seats on a bus, or drink from a better water fountain. He marched also so America's poor (black, white and all others) could receive education, employment and improved housing.

Barack Obama, too, is a man of change. Big Change. Sweeping Change. Change for all of us. This is why at Grant Park it was so important for him to evoke the memory of Martin, and the power of those uncompromising ideals. But, like King, his goals are not limited with the equality of all races. Again, these are natural. It is like dedicating your entire life to promoting the wind. It will blow; all we must do is not attempt to hinder its natural path. Through Obama, the wide-reaching dreams of King are coupled with the unimaginable challenges levied by John Kennedy. Obama evoked both great leaders when he said:

I know you didn't do this just to win an election and I know you didn't do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime - two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they'll make the mortgage, or pay their doctors bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you - we as a people will get there.

Obama reminded us of both great leaders, in his message, and in his character. I saw Dr. King's Dream come true on that stage in the smiles of Obama's daughters and Biden's granddaughters. Their families present us a mirror on America: a mountain of experiences and a deep ocean of potential. Kennedy's vision was apparent in Obama's challenge to us. This is the dawn of a new age when we once again must ask what we can do for our country. The challenges ahead seem as insurmountable as the moon once had. The commitment to solve them is unwavering and eternal, requiring dedication and sacrifice. Kennedy and King never promised us a hand out. They promised us a fair shake. They promised opportunities to be our best, as individuals and as neighbors. They promised us the endless possibility that comes with equality and self-respect. Once again, we will be presented with this moment opportunity. What we make of it, is up to us. Together. All of us.