Commentary: Obama, King and the Intersection of Two Prominent Lives

There is significance to Barack Obama taking the oath of office on the day the nation commemorates Martin Luther King Jr.

Posted: 01/21/2013 07:00 AM EST

There is a fascinating intersection between the life of Barack Obama and the history of Martin Luther King Jr.

In 2008, candidate Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for the presidency on the anniversary of King’s historic "I Have a Dream" speech of 1963. And this year, the president’s second public inauguration falls on the very day the nation commemorates the 84th birthday of the slain civil rights leader.

Indeed, there is yet another powerful symbolic connection between the nation’s 44th president and the civil rights icon: Obama will take the oath of office with his hand upon King’s personal bible.

To many, Obama’s second inaugural — indeed, his entire presidency — represents a slice of the vision King spoke of in the memorable speech he delivered the night before he was shot. In that emotional address, King said that he had been allowed to go up to the mountain and to look over.

“And I've seen the Promised Land,” King said. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

The election and re-election of the nation’s first African-American president certainly represents a manifestation of the promise that King may well have forecast for the future of this country. After all, when King was born there was but one Black member of Congress: Oscar DePriest of Chicago. When King died, there was only modest improvement: five in Congress and one in the U.S. Senate: Edward Brooke of Massachusetts.

Today, in the age of Obama, there are more than 45 Black members of Congress and one in the Senate: Tim Scott of South Carolina. There are dozens of African-American state officials and mayors throughout the country. Black Americans routinely fill positions that would scarcely have been imaginable in King’s lifetime.

Yet, electoral successes are likely to have been just a small part of King’s mountaintop vision. Martin Luther King Jr., after all, led a life, particularly toward its end, providing attention and resources to the most marginalized of Americans: the poor, the unemployed.

And that is where one hopes the president will view his intersection with King as something of a relay. Clearly, Obama has already addressed the needs of Americans who have not had adequate health care coverage, which has been a particularly chronic problem in African-American communities.

Similarly, he has rightly condemned wars that take American lives in areas of the world where the United States has no business sending its troops. That certainly speaks of the vision of King, who was pilloried by Americans of all colors and ethnicities in his lifetime for his outspoken criticism of the Vietnam War.

But, to rightly take on the mantle of King, to have this intersection truly speak volumes, the president must do more. Foremost on that list is a meaningful plan to reduce the continued staggering rate of unemployment among Blacks and Latinos. Reducing unemployment and poverty is the cause for which King fought when he was gunned down on that April evening in 1968.

Hopefully, the president will not rest his hand on that King bible as just a symbolic homage to the man whose national holiday is celebrated on Inauguration Day 2013. One hopes he will be energized by the principles of the man who carried that book of scripture — and to be galvanized by a spirit to energetically, unapologetically take on new frontiers for the very Americans so dear to King’s heart.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: AP Photo, File)

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