Barack Obama: An MLK Day Appreciation

I’ve sometimes wondered what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have thought had he lived to see Barack Obama become president. Would he have been surprised that an African-American man was elected to the highest office in the land 40 years after his speech in which he said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop. . .”? There’s no doubt that King was essential to this progress: the United States went from Jim Crow to a black president in the space of one generation, and it would not have happened without King’s efforts and sacrifices.

As leaders, they have a lot in common. Both gained prominence as relatively young men. Both used restraint as an effective tactic yet emotion and conviction were central to their effectiveness. Next to King’s legendary speeches, Obama is soft-spoken. When he shows great emotion, as he did when speaking of the children slain at Sandy Hook School, it is all the more poignant because of his usual even-tempered manner. His eulogy in Charleston after the massacre of nine worshippers in a church by a white supremacist, when he softly began to sing “Amazing Grace,” was among the most authentic and moving emotional moments in presidential history.

Like King, Obama carries an air of dignity. His grace allows him to appear almost like an ethereal creature, like a political Fred Astaire dancing through the treacherous waters of partisan politics. Forceful and commanding when necessary, self-effacing and modest in defeat, he and his family have been models of probity and elegance.

I was among those who hoped the election of Obama signaled a new era of racial tolerance and harmony. At that moment, the pain of the burden of guilt that whites carry about our history of oppression and racism in this country was momentarily assuaged. While it couldn’t be compared to the burden that racism’s victims carry, the feelings of elation and relief aroused by this landmark event felt almost like the way one feels when awakening from a nightmare, realizing that it was just a bad dream.

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  • Leslie in Oregon January 16, 2017 at 5:06 pm

    For all the reasons Dr. Ford cites and more, President Obama will be sorely missed. It was our great privilege to have him as our President, and I look forward to supporting his coming endeavors.

  • Mickey January 16, 2017 at 11:12 am

    Thank you for that piece. You’ve written what I’ve thought about, believed. I didn’t believe he would be nominated much less elected. And I was wrong. I’m glad I was wrong about that. A shining example of an American! Thank you again.