Hopes and Dreams: Martin Luther King and Obama’s first year



January 2010 is an occasion that is widely celebrated around the country, particularly in the African American community. Not only does it mark the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but it also commemorates the anniversary of the election of President Barack Obama ’91 a year ago this past week. For African Americans, there is a great amount of pride as they look upon these two historic figures and their contributions to equality and justice in America.  While celebrating Dr. King’s accomplishments, there is also the challenge in trying to assess the impact of President Obama’s election.

The first year of President Barack Obama’s presidency has produced mixed results.  One highlight was his early decision to select Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a fierce competitor during the Democratic primary, as Secretary of State.  It was a bold decision that reflected the President’s ability to both find talent among the ranks of a group of notable Americans and to move forward his foreign policy agenda.  His nomination of Eric Holder as the first African American Attorney General, former Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan ’86 as the first woman to serve as Solicitor General, and former Second Circuit judge Sonia Sotomayor as the first Latina on the Supreme Court, were all notable successes. 

Consistent with President Obama’s eager goal of getting things accomplished, he not only pushed for the bailout of the American financial system, helping it avoid falling into a financial crisis as significant as the Depression of the 1930’s, but also steered Congress through the adoption of an $800 billion stimulus package designed to find jobs for Americans throughout the United States and to create financial resources to address the stagnant economy. 

The President’s promise to draw down the number of troops in Iraq has also been successful, with U.S. Marines departing the country this week as the first wave of the withdrawal.  At the same time, President Obama did not meet his goal of closing Guantanamo in a year, and, in apparent contradiction to his opposition to the war in Iraq, escalated the war in Afghanistan. But all throughout his campaign, he had made it clear that the real fight, to stem the spread of Al Qaeda, is in Afghanistan.  His decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan to address the growing threat of terrorism drew unlikely support, but also much criticism from both sides of the political aisle. 

Also looking back on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King this month, we realize he was enormously accomplished in pushing forward the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and ultimately the Public Accommodations Act and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.  But Dr. King also encountered much controversy and objection to his agenda of non-violence and civil rights.  As we look at the success of the March on Washington on August 28th, 1963, we’re reminded that, less than a month later, four little girls were murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on September 21st, 1963.  It took events like the March 1965 beating of John Lewis, who now serves as a Congressman from Georgia, for America to address issues of inequality, and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s overt approval of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

But President Obama’s first year and Dr. King’s legacy as a civil rights leader reveal very different attitudes toward war.  Dr. King was an advocate of non-violence, leading to his historic address at Riverside Church in New York in opposition to the Vietnam War. It drew harsh criticism, but it reflected King’s relentless commitment to non-violence even when it was an unpopular theme to pursue. Similarly, Obama was one of the early opponents of the Iraq War. He sharply criticized the war in 2002, less than one year after the anniversary of the death of over 3,000 innocent Americans at the World Trade Center, in Pennsylvania, and in the Pentagon. 

But their contrasting views on war were most evident after President Obama’s decision to increase the level of troops the U.S. maintained in Afghanistan, at the same time he was awarded, like Dr. King, the Nobel Peace Prize. While Dr. King was also criticized for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize at a young age, it was remarkable how much he had furthered the agenda of civil rights in his 39 years before his assassination.  President Obama has had the same goals in mind, but his agenda has taken one step back after attempting to push forward access to greater opportunity and equality. In his remarkable speech as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, he defended the idea of a “just war”, and received the unlikely support of people such as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Henry Kissinger. 

President Obama’s first year in office was also a mixed record for African Americans.  While the diversity of the President’s political appointments have been lauded – President Obama has pursued an aggressive effort to create a very diverse cabinet, appointed a diverse group of federal judges at the District and Circuit court levels – there has been much concern about the slow state of economic development, the lack of structured efforts to increase the opportunities for African Americans in urban areas, and failure to fulfill an expected goal of greater diversity and accomplishment throughout the nation.  And yet, as we look beyond the limited success that has directly affected the African American community, President Obama has pushed to ensure greater support for minority owned businesses, and for a race to the top for educational reform and a health care plan, at best a fragile hope at the moment, designed to provide coverage to an unprecedented number of African Americans.

The President’s ambition has not been questioned. His ability to achieve many of his lofty goals in the face of fierce resistance from both Republicans and moderate Democrats only reinforces the challenges he will face during the next four years and beyond. What really stands out is the President’s ability to take bold positions, push multiple agendas at the same time, and to persuade doubters, as he undoubtedly will have in his State of the Union address this week. The same enthusiastic focus on multiple issues will guide his presidency for years to come. 

While President Obama cannot be satisfied that he has accomplished as much as he had ambitiously sought, it is certainly true that he has developing unprecedented levels of global support for America’s move from isolation to an inclusive agenda. It will take decades to fully evaluate the impact of his election and accomplishments, but it’s hard to doubt that his efforts to improve America’s global relationships, and to invest in its economy, not only face great challenges, but that, in time, will bear fruit.

Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. ’78 is the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

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