My reflections on Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream and Sen. Barack Obama’s promise

Austin McCoy

Two words came to my mind as I prepared to watch Sen. Barack Obama formally accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency of the United States – “historic” and “emotional.” The day was historic because the first African-American was set to accept the nomination 53 years to the day of the brutal murder of Emmett Till and 45 years to the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The day was emotional because I could not help but think of the stories of discrimination my parents, peers (black and white) and professors shared over the years. However, one of my friends provided a more fitting description of the day via text message: “auspicious.” And after listening to both King’s and Obama’s speeches, that day I could not help but agree. While their speeches diverged in subject matter, both men captured the promise of the moment.

To the dismay of the historian, Obama’s speech was not nostalgic. It was present. To the dismay of the traditional civil rights activist, the speech was not about racial injustice. It was about all injustice. To the dismay of the Republican, the speech was not conservative enough. It was about the ideological flexibility and nuance needed to account for the vast and contrasting realities of all Americans. To the dismay of the leftist, the speech was not radical enough. It was about forging a common cause.

Even though I may not have agreed with all of Obama’s points, his speech was what it needed to be for the moment. It spoke to the tangible political issues on the minds of all Americans today. And like King did in 1963 for African-Americans, Obama called attention to the many problems plaguing American society over the last eight years, whether it was the tired educational system, the reckless foreign policy, the sagging economy or the dysfunctional and polarized politics in Washington.

But most importantly, King’s and Obama’s speeches were both affirming and challenging. Both King and Obama affirmed the experiences and efforts of the regular people who enlisted themselves in the struggle for change in America. Seeking ideological common ground, King and Obama encouraged their supporters to think of their particular issues in new ways and to keep going. With moral outrage, both also challenged the supporters of current regimes to take responsibility for their actions and to change course in policy and practice. Through their examples, their speeches demonstrated the need for common citizens to highlight and diagnose societal problems and to proudly stand up and fix them.

In drawing these thematic parallels between the speeches, it’s not to assume that the possibility of an Obama presidency is the sole answer for all of our pressing societal issues. The answer lies in all of the small actions of individuals interested in addressing particular problems in society. The answer also lies in all of the nagging and frustrating interactions you may have had with individuals who see no use for fighting against racial injustice, people who still believe women should defer to men in all aspects and that reproductive freedom for women is an abomination, or with the political party that believes poverty is the product of irresponsible choice, or that wars with nations (or networks) are inevitable and thus necessary. This moment was everyone’s because Obama’s nomination was the culmination of all those small moments of frustration, setbacks, defeats, breakthroughs and occasional victories. This is exactly why I told my friend she should watch Obama accept the nomination. Because if, as King often said, the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, it will be people like her and others who bend it, not those who see no reason to act. Auspicious indeed.

Austin McCoy is a second-year master’s candidate in history and a guest columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected] .