Barack Obama can't escape Martin Luther King Jr.'s shadow -- even if he wanted to. His Democratic National Committee acceptance speech fell on the 45th anniversary of King's "I Have A Dream" speech. He becomes the 44th president of the United States one day after the MLK annual national holiday.
But the real irony is that Obama uses Martin Luther King as a unifying bridge to speak to his white and black audiences. King isn't the only "bridge" to which Obama resorts in this manner. The pre-inaugural train ride to Washington, DC, -- like his campaign kick-off announcement at the Springfield, Illinois, statehouse -- also intentionally links Obama with the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln.
Some may find it overly ambitious, but Obama is clearly trying to present himself as the ultimate "uniter." He is attempting to fulfill the the dreams of two assassinated leaders -- one black and one white -- who both lost their lives over the issue of race. Yet, how far can he he go in speaking to this perpetual American problem.
He has, so far, according to Gwen Ifill's new book, The Breakthrough: Politics And Race In The Age of Obama, Obama walked a very fine line between being obviously black (even as he is, of course, half-white), while deftly avoiding the issue of race to the best extent he can. At his DNC speech, Obama avoided mentioning King by name. Instead, he obliquely referenced, "the young preacher" fron Georgia.
Yet, King speeches -- even if not overtly referencing race -- have always provided inspirational gracenotes for Obama's rhetoric. Throughout the campaign, his "change" message was regularly fueled by King's "fierce urgency of now."
For his Election Day victory speech, Obama sampled (to use a hip-hop term) King's "Promised Land" speech -- the one he gave in Memphis on April 3rd, the night before he was assassinated.
In Memphis, King said:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. 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!
In Chicago, Obama said:
The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.
That relatively overlooked line was a rather remarkable choice on Obama's part. It wasn't merely that he would think to use an homage to a famous civil rights era speech in his first speech as president-elect of the country. It's that he might be seen as nearly tempting fate by alluding to the speech King gave the night before his death. To African Americans -- most likely to noticed the line, it must have seemed a bit jarring, given the reasonable fears many blacks have for Obama's safety.
However, given how close to Obama's thoughts King has been -- and Lincoln has been for both the beginning and end of Obama's quest for the White House -- it will be interesting to see how he he embraces their twin narratives as he first takes on the mantle of Leader of the Free World on Tuesday.
New York writer Robert A. George blogs at Ragged Thots and dabbles in stand-up comedy.