Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr.: It’s Complicated

The two men's lives are irrevocably linked in American history. On Inauguration Day, it's important to remember their differences.

If Martin Luther King Jr. had been allowed to live out a normal life—if he hadn’t been cut down by an assassin’s bullet before he even turned 40—he might’ve lived to see today: He might’ve been an 84-year-old man watching Barack Obama inaugurated as this country’s president for the second time.

History was not so kind. Instead, the country celebrates President Obama’s inauguration today, the same day we’ve also set aside to observe King’s birthday. And the confluence of the two events causes one to ask: What would the old minister have made of the young president?

Would Rev. King have praised Obama? Or criticized him with righteous fury?

Best guess? Probably a bit of both.

Surely, if King was a prophet, then Obama is—at least partially—the fulfillment of a prophecy. When our current president was born, the Civil Rights Act had not yet been passed, and interracial marriages remained illegal. To go from that status quo to a twice-elected African American president within a lifetime remains an astonishing, if imperfect, evolution for this country, and it’s one that King helped foster with his dream that in the United States, citizens “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Don’t forget, too, that King ended his life battling more over economics than on race: He was in Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers when he was assassinated. He likely would’ve celebrated Obama’s efforts to pass the Affordable Care Act. And though King was a Christian minister, let us guess that he would’ve sided with those seeking marriage rights for gays and lesbians in this country; at the very least we can claim that Obama is heir to King’s spirit on this issue, if not his actual position.

So there’s that. On the other hand…

King was a pacifist: It was central to his vision, and central the reason he’s lionized across the political spectrum today. That he was able to help bring about such massive change in American society and politics without resorting to violence was an incredible achievement. And King wasn’t fooling around with his pacifism: At the end of his life he was an opponent of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

So King might’ve lauded President Obama’s efforts to draw down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he probably would’ve been horrified at President Obama’s drone warfare in Pakistan and Yemen, and stunned by the assassination of American citizens without due process.

And as the not-occasional target of J. Edgar Hoover, we can speculate how King might’ve felt about a president who oversees an ever-more-massive electronic spying apparatus. As a man imprisoned for dissent, frequently, we can guess what he would’ve thought about the imprisonment and prosecutions of Bradley Manning, Aaron Swartz, John Kirkaou, and others who sought or told the truth about government activities.

Barack Obama has frequently invoked King, quoting him as saying that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Could you say the same thing about Obama’s presidency? For many of us, even those who have voted for him, the answer to that question is complicated.

Truth is this: Obama made clear long ago that he wasn’t bound by King’s vision. At the ceremony where he received (undeservedly) the Nobel Peace Prize, he made that plain—praising King and Gandhi as apostles of non-violence. Then he delivered the slap:

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.  I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.  For make no mistake:  Evil does exist in the world.  A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies.  Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.  To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

Four years later, the arrogance and condescension of that paragraph still sting. King didn’t face down “the world as it is?” King didn’t see that “evil exists in the world?” It’s nonsense: King saw the world as it is, lived among people daily oppressed by evil. He didn’t pick up a gun. But he won anyway. As a head of state, Obama might do well to ponder what that means.

If King had survived, he’d likely not be so beloved today. He’d probably occupy the same space in our culture that Bob Dylan does today, or maybe Rep. John Lewis, who marched with King, but whom some mainstream conservatives today brand as a “race hustler.” Do something great, you’re a hero. Die soon afterward, you’re a martyr. Stick around too long, and the great cycle of politics and life reabsorbs you, and brings you down again.

King died a martyr. Time and again, Obama has been brought down by the politics. Their lives are linked, but they are, in the end, very different men.