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January 21, 2013 10:43 AM Obama, MLK and the Continuing Dilemma of the “First Black President”

By Ed Kilgore

Those of you who have been reading the new January/February issue of the Washington Monthly are well-attuned to the issues raised by Susan Saulny’s front-page piece in today’s New York Times:

The Rev. Greggory L. Brown, a 59-year-old pastor of a small Lutheran church, committed himself to ministry and a life pursuing social justice on April 4, 1968 — the day the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain by an assassin’s bullet.
And four years ago, like so many African-Americans around the country, he saw Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency as nothing short of a shocking validation of Dr. King’s vision of a more perfect union, where the content of character trumps the color of skin. “I was so excited when he was giving that first inauguration speech,” said Mr. Brown, of Oakland, Calif. “I could feel it in my bones.”
On Monday, when President Obama places his hand on Dr. King’s personal Bible to take a second, ceremonial oath of office, he will be symbolically linking himself to the civil rights hero. But Mr. Brown, along with other African-Americans interviewed recently, said their excitement would be laced with a new expectation, that Mr. Obama move to the forefront of his agenda the issues that Dr. King championed: civil rights and racial and economic equality.

The new issue of the Monthly has an extensive series of articles on the continuing legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and what can be done—sometimes with more, sometimes with less race-consciousness—to combat it in areas ranging from housing to education to health care to criminal justice to the economy.

No one can expect Obama to pursue all these avenues of racial progress against generally united Republican opposition. But there is a potential agenda that simultaneously addresses racial inequality while reflecting a strategy of what Simon van Zuylen-Wood calls “targeted universalism”—which is perhaps necessary for America’s first African-American president. It’s probably worth remembering at this moment that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s great accomplishment was to make the plight of his people in the Jim Crow South and the informally segregated North a concern of all Americans by simply asking the country to live up to its own much-proclaimed universal values. The question is whether a re-elected Barack Obama can do the same, or instead preside over an administration of some great accomplishments but too many lost opportunities.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • FC on January 21, 2013 11:17 AM:

    I'm not sure people are capable of living up to universal values, so much as society moves *away from inhumanity. When that which is anathema to civilization is exposed, when light shines on unforgettable images of brutality, *then there may be change.

  • Peter C on January 21, 2013 12:32 PM:

    We broke the barrier and has performed admirably under trying circumstances. What used to be difficult to imagine is now solidly within the realm of 'normal'. That is progress which I wouldn't have expected to see only 8 years or so ago.

    I look forward to a woman breaking the barrier. That, also, will be important progress, but it seems greatly more likely given the success of the Obama Presidency.

    There is always more to do, but I'm proud of the progress we've made.

  • Peter C on January 21, 2013 12:35 PM:

    "HE" broke the barrier, no 'we'. sorry.

  • golack on January 21, 2013 12:54 PM:

    Again, whether he meant to, or not, he's taken a chapter from Jackie Robinson's play book. Basically, ignore the taunts and be the adult in the room. And that paved the way for others.

  • Mrs. J on January 21, 2013 1:37 PM:

    Elected not only once, but twice! Despite the effort by Republicans to limit our voting rights and capabilities.

    And the president's inauguration speech today was a progressive's ideal dream. Wonderful.

    Relevant post seen on the web:
    "...Does anyone remember the last presidential elections held in our Democracy? Bush the younger ascending to the presidency with a minority of votes, votes not counted in the state of Florida governed by his brother, and the final theft of the election certified by a supreme court appointed by his father?
    Then four years later, Ohio seals the deal with votes counted by Diebold computers that miraculously produce results that diverge 10% from exit polls, an outcome that would be grounds for calling fraud had it happened in any third world country..."

  • c u n d gulag on January 21, 2013 1:42 PM:

    Economic justice?
    What's that?

    Boy, have we let that go by the wayside.

    I look forward to more Black Presidents, and women, and Hispanic ones, Oriental ones, Gay ones, and, maybe long after I'm gone - one who is an open Atheist or Agnostic.