In my grandmother’s Arkansas home hangs a portrait of President Barack Obama with Martin Luther King Jr., and these words are written beneath the two men: “We Have a Dream; the Dream Has Come True.”
It was one of many paintings, posters, buttons, T-shirts and other products that came out in 2008 during Obama’s historic election, tying the election back to King and his historic “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington.
Some felt the comparisons were premature, even inaccurate, but many simply did not care. The idea of a black president once seemed like a dream, but now it was realized. Expectations for Obama were high, but what we received after 2008 was a president often stymied by a gridlocked Congress, and a voice constrained by being the president of all and not some.
Yet the comparison with King and that portrait in my grandmother’s home remains.
Today, Obama will be stepping into the oversized shoes of history when he speaks at the commemoration celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. He will be giving a speech in the looming shadow of the one that came 50 years before — King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the greatest speeches in American history.
It’s a nice bookend — the march in 1963 and the first African-American president in 2013, coming together to create history on top of history — and I’m sure the president is feeling it. Feeling both the great expectations he has for himself and the expectations of others for this speech.
I don’t envy him. People are expecting a speech that will define something, say something, mean something about what it was then and what it is now. And Obama is a great speaker. But now, as with those roadside portraits of him and King, he has to try to live up to an expectation — that there is something between the slain activist and the former community organizer-turned-“leader of the free world.” That something binds them besides color and maleness and symbolism. That something warrants their sharing the same poster space, the same stage in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Obama, without asking for it, was appointed by some to be the heir to King’s legacy — a role that, as president, he can never truly fill. MSNBC anchor and activist Al Sharpton has said that Obama “can’t lead a march on himself.”
And yet the pressure to do so must sometimes be immense.
I always imagine that there is a psychological war being waged within the president between the idealistic young man who believed in hope and change and the older, wizened individual who must govern through strength and measured tones today. Before he was president, Obama spoke more freely and, in some cases, more passionately about the causes he held most dear. He could speak in the voice of the outsider, as King did.
Then there is the fact that the president is a black man indebted heavily to those civil rights activists and workers who gave time, blood and tears to the movement. He knows he is indebted to people who never lived to see this day, this 50th anniversary that to the young must seem like an old war that was fought long ago, and to the old like yesterday. The president must speak in a way that will reach both.
The president’s speech will be analyzed and studied and compared with the one 50 years prior. There will, of course, be no comparison. While passions will be high and reverence abundant, Obama is not King. They do not have the same fight. They do not sit in the same positions. But they do share a bond unseen.
In his day, King influenced the halls of power and the passions of presidents. Today Obama sits at the head of those halls, and from the distance, history is calling out to him. King is still influencing him, as he influenced Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson before.
Obama can’t give the speech of a brilliant, rousing outsider. But he can still be a transformative figure, a symbol of progress, that proves that in 50 years we could go from impossible to possible. That we can go from a man speaking of what had been and what could be to a president speaking of what is and what should be.