WASHINGTON — Barack Obama was 2 years old and growing up in Hawaii when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Fifty years later, the nation’s first black president will stand as the most high-profile example of the racial progress King espoused, delivering remarks Wednesday at a nationwide commemoration of the 1963 demonstration for jobs, economic justice and racial equality.
Obama believes his success in attaining the nation’s highest political office is a testament to the dedication of King and others, and that he would not be the current Oval Office occupant if it were not for their willingness to persevere through repeated imprisonments, bomb threats and blasts from billy clubs and fire hoses.
“When you are talking about Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington, you’re talking about one of the maybe five greatest speeches in American history,” Obama said in a radio interview Tuesday. “And the words that he spoke at that particular moment, with so much at stake, and the way in which he captured the hopes and dreams of an entire generation I think is unmatched.”
In tribute, Obama keeps a bust of King in the Oval Office and a framed copy of the program from that historic day when 250,000 people gathered for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Within five years, the man Obama would later identify as one of his idols was dead, assassinated in April 1968 outside of a motel room in Memphis, Tenn.
But King’s dream didn’t die with him. Many believe it came true in 2008 when Obama became the first black man Americans ever elected as their president.
“Tomorrow, just like 50 years ago, an African-American man will stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and speak about civil rights and justice. But afterward, he won’t visit the White House. He’ll go home to the White House,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday, speaking of his basketball buddy and boss. “That’s how far this country has come. A black president is a victory that few could have imagined 50 years ago.”
“He stands on the shoulders of Martin Luther King, and the sacrifices that King made that make a President Obama possible are deeply humbling to him,” said Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s senior advisers and a close family friend.
For Obama, the march is a “seminal event” and part of his generation’s “formative memory.” A half-century after the march, he said, is a good time to reflect on how far the country has come and how far it still has to go, particularly after the Trayvon Martin shooting trial in Florida.
A jury’s decision to acquit neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in the 2012 fatal shooting of the unarmed, 17-year-old black teen outraged blacks across the country last month and reignited a nationwide discussion about the state of U.S. race relations. The response to the verdict also raised expectations for America’s black president to say something about the case.
Race isn’t a subject Obama likes to talk about in public, and he does so only when the times require it, such as the speech on race that he gave in 2008 when his presidential campaign was threatened by the anti-American rantings of his Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Writer.
In his interview Tuesday with Tom Joyner and co-host Sybil Wilkes of the Tom Joyner Morning Show, Obama said he imagines that King “would be amazed in many ways about the progress that we’ve made.” He listed advances such as equal rights before the law, an accessible judicial system, thousands of African-American elected officials, African-American CEOs and the doors that the civil rights movement opened for Latinos, women and gays.
“I think he would say it was a glorious thing,” he said.
But Obama noted that King’s speech was also about jobs and justice. “When it comes to the economy, when it comes to inequality, when it comes to wealth, when it comes to the challenges that inner cities experience, he would say that we have not made as much progress as the civil and social progress that we’ve made, and that it’s not enough just to have a black president, it’s not enough just to have a black syndicated radio show host,” Obama said.
When he was much younger, it took Obama time to embrace his black-white, African and American heritage. He chronicled that personal journey in his best-selling memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” in which he wrote about himself as “the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds.”
After Zimmerman was acquitted, Obama spoke out to help people understand black outrage over the verdict. In unusually personal terms, Obama talked about experiences he shares with so many other black men, before he became a well-known public figure, such as being followed in department stores and hearing the click of car doors being locked as he walked by.
He said the African-American community was looking at the issue “through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
In Wednesday’s speech, Obama will offer his personal reflections on the civil rights movement, King’s speech, the progress achieved in the past 50 years and the challenges that demand attention from the next generation.
Obama has said King is one of two people he admires “more than anybody in American history.” The other is Abraham Lincoln.