On one end of the Washington, DC Mall lies the U.S. Capitol building. On the other, the Abraham Lincoln Memorial. And when Barack Obama takes his second oath of presidential office on Monday, January 21, it’s hard to imagine he won’t be thinking of a man who famously stood on the opposite end of the Mall, and whose national holiday is observed on the 21st.
Celebrated poet and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Maya Angelou recalled a conversation she had with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., where she said there would never be a black U.S. President. King disagreed, saying it would happen within 40 years. And, 40 years after King’s death, Barack Obama was elected.
After all the hatred and intolerance that he’d been witness to and victim of, how could King believe that the people of the U.S. would elect a black president in just a few short decades? Blacks were still being beaten and murdered, their houses burned to ruins and their children spit on for asserting their rights to an equal vote, basic human dignity, and quite literally, a seat at the table. How could King possibly envision a near future when a majority of voters of every color would cast their ballot for a black man—not because of his race and not in spite of it, either—simply because they thought he was the most qualified person for the job?
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Maybe it was that faith that allowed him to endure unimaginable heartbreak and humiliation, and to watch his race suffer the same…maybe it was that faith that allowed him a vision of a better America, where, to turn his iconic phrase, individuals would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Maybe King had to believe that this better America was not only possible but within sight. Maybe that was the only way he could keeping fighting his nonviolent war on racism and intolerance.
Now, 45 years after King’s death, the nation certainly has come a long way, and not just because we’ve elected a black president not once, but twice. Still, the embers of hatred and intolerance continue to burn in corners of the United States, from the pulpit of Westboro Baptist Church to the migrant camps of Immokalee, Florida to the inner cities of the northeast. Whether it’s a pundit or politician’s thinly veiled racism in references to “welfare queens” or eating tacos or wishing he were Mexican—we are not, nor may we ever be, a race-blind nation.
Were he alive today, what battles would Dr. King be fighting? For equal access to quality public and higher education? Or universal healthcare? Or the rights of gays to marry and adopt? Or would he take up the banner of immigration reform, so that those who shared his dream of a better life in America might have the freedom to see it through? Or would he take up gun control, to see that no more innocent men, women and children were slaughtered in our streets and schools? Or would he focus his attentions on other parts of the world, like Syria and the Sudan, with their unthinkable amounts of human suffering and carnage? He’d certainly have his hands full trying to choose the issues to tackle.
Then again, perhaps in his old age, Dr. King would allow himself to slow down a bit—but like his spiritual brother Nelson Mandela, it’s hard to believe he would—and let younger leaders carry the flag. He would certainly have earned the right to a restful retirement from public life. But I prefer to think he’d still be an activist for peace and equality, a giant figure who could make kings and tyrants and dictators yield to reason and right. I’m sure he’d be an unofficial but heeded advisor to President Obama, much in the way Bill Clinton is today.
Surely Barack Obama knows that were it not for Dr. King, he would not be standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on January 21, taking the oath of office for a second time. And perhaps, in some inexplicable manner, Dr. King can look upon the Obama inauguration and how far we’ve come as a nation, and know that his struggles and his ultimate sacrifice were not in vain.
Had he survived an assassin’s bullet in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., would turn 84 years old this month. Surely he would be in attendance for Obama’s second inauguration, just as he had been for the first. Perhaps he’d even be sitting on the dais or better yet, delivering the invocation to start the ceremony, in that deep, rousing oratory style that was part Cicero and part old-time preacher. Now that would be a beautiful sight to see indeed.