Glenn Thrush, Politico, August 27, 2013
Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama, the two of most important black leaders in American history, operated in vastly different eras and political arenas — under a strikingly similar set of ground rules.
King and Obama — born 32 years apart — both learned that an African-American leader needs to link racial equality to the broader cause of economic justice that included white, working- and middle-class Americans in order to avoid failure, backlash and marginalization.
To that end, Obama will spotlight his fallen hero’s unfinished economic agenda when he celebrates the 50th anniversary of King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech on Wednesday, leveraging an event most Americans view as strictly a racial milestone into something bigger — and more useful to a struggling president: A rationale for his second-term agenda.
Obama’s ability to blend class and race messages — to select the most aspirational elements of each — is a key to understanding his success. It’s his go-to power move, the political equivalent of a LeBron crossover dribble, the strategy that helped him bridge the gap between prophet and president.
“For Obama, economics is a safe way to talk about race,” said Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a three-volume history of the King era widely regarded as the definitive chronicle of the civil rights movement.
“Even though he’s the first black president, he’s in a tiptoe stance on race — that’s a phrase I borrowed from King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’ It makes him nervous. He can’t even ask the most basic question which he’s begging to ask: To what degree is the partisan gridlock that is frustrating his attempts to govern racially driven?” says Branch.
“I’m not blaming him … The slightest mention of race could alienate the millions of white Americans who voted for him,” he added.
Jesse Jackson, who more than anyone occupies the no man’s land between his mentor King and Obama, the man who won the political office he prized, told POLITICO he “absolutely” thinks congressional Republicans are motivated by race in opposing the president’s policies.
“The tea party is the resurrection of the Confederacy, it’s the Fort Sumter tea party,” Jackson said.
Team Obama is not a deeply sentimental group, nor is it inclined to make big, dramatic gestures without a clear political upside. That’s why the West Wing has thus far brushed off suggestions Obama make a symbolic trip to the predominantly black, bankrupt city of Detroit — because “there’s not a goddam we can do right now to help them,” according to one Obama hand.
King’s speech and the march on Washington, Obama recently told The New York Times, “is part of my generation’s formative memory … [A]fter the Trayvon Martin case, a lot of people have been thinking about race, but I always remind people — and, in fact, I have a copy of the original program in my office, framed — that that was a march for jobs and justice; that there was a massive economic component to that.
“When you think about the coalition that brought about civil rights, it wasn’t just folks who believed in racial equality; it was people who believed in working folks having a fair shot,” he said.
King didn’t embrace economic inequality as a central theme until the summer of 1967, when he began organizing a multiracial Poor People’s Campaign, an unsuccessful effort to prod the Johnson administration to pass a national economic bill of rights; He was murdered a year later supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis.
Yet even at the end of his life, King — unlike Obama — viewed his struggle as fundamentally racial, according to his biographer Taylor Branch.
“Race was and is the real third rail,” he said. “Race had been at the heart of our worst compromises as a country from the Revolution to the Civil War on down … It’s the gateway to everything else.”