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Is President Obama Fulfilling Martin Luther King Jr’s Legacy?

U.S. President Barack Obama
John Moore/Getty Images

The second inauguration of President Obama falling on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday invites comparison between the two men. There is a sense in which Obama represents a fulfillment of MLK’s legacy, but not in way you might initially think.

To be sure, the reelection of a biracial son of a broken home to the highest office in the land is a testament to the progress we have made towards King’s dream of a time and place where people are judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.

However, it is not as a civil rights leader that Obama can be seen as following in King’s footsteps. Obama has not signed an executive order or initiated a piece of legislation designed to address historical wrongs or the persistent effects of structural racism on the African-American community.

This President is known for giving inspirational speeches, but again it is not here that Obama stands as a successor to Dr. King. While the references to God in today’s inauguration speech are unlikely to have been any greater in number or in conviction had it been Mitt Romney up on that stage, Obama’s religious faith does not drive his oration the way Rev. King’s did.

Obama is a politician, not a preacher. No speech that Obama has ever given will ever resonate with the conscience of the average American, nor receive as much replay, as the “I have a dream” message already has.

This is in part because of how well Dr. King struck a Christian chord in exposing the unfulfilled promises of the founding fathers. MLK tied together patriotism and mainstream American religious beliefs in a way that has clearly weighed on Obama’s thinking, but if you are looking for a more direct influence on the President’s style as an orator, you need to look to Lincoln.

Where President Obama’s concerns can be seen as a more direct connection to Dr. King is in his concern for the everyday, working class American. Let us not forget that MLK was assassinated while in Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike.

Obama’s life experience and time as a community organizer has always shone through in his politics. From Obamacare to extended unemployment benefits, from saving jobs in the auto industry to preserving tax cuts for the bottom 99% of American families, the plight of the average, work-a-day American has been omnipresent in Obama’s thoughts just as it was in Dr. King’s.

Probably most important for the long term political success of both of these men’s ideas, is that their commitment to relieving economic injustice has also been characterized by a shared sense of the importance of moderation. Calling Obama a hardcore socialist is as absurd as calling King Django Unchained.

Just as King’s calls for nonviolent protest infuriated the radicals in his time that demanded more progress, Obama’s continual willingness to bargain with the rightwing routinely disappoints the most progressive elements of his own party.

It is this moderation though that brings along the approval of the masses and is likely to ensure that Obama lands on the correct side of history, just as Dr. King has done.

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