Obama, MLK and the Continuing Dilemma of the “First Black President”

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.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.