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Opinion

Does President Obama fulfill MLK's dream? (+video)

For all the meaning that will be on display when President Obama commemorates a seminal moment in US history today, it will be a largely symbolic moment that does not bring the change that the March on Washington demanded. This may have to be enough.

By Theodore R. JohnsonOp-ed contributor / August 28, 2013

Then President-elect Obama waves to supporters after his victory speech on election night at Grant Park in Chicago on Nov. 4, 2008. Op-ed contributor Theodore R. Johnson writes: 'His election is, and will forever be, [Mr.] Obama’s most significant contribution to African-Americans.' It 'updated the dream and positively changed the realm of the possible.'

David Guttenfelder/AP/file

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On this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the nation’s first black president will address the country from the very spot where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his moving “I Have a Dream” speech – a rousing petition for an end to racial discrimination. The visual of President Obama on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial will be a powerful commentary on America’s progress, and will have special meaning for African-Americans.

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Monitor staffer Pat Murphy goes behind the scenes with correspondent Carmen Sisson from Greenwood Miss., on her coverage of a new generation of civil rights activists.

The election of a black man to the presidency has forever changed the outlook of African-Americans, but it has not changed our circumstances. Mr. Obama's election was anticipated as the culmination of the two complementary, but distinct, events of August 28, 1963 – the march and the speech. These are often couched as synonymous when, actually, one was an activist demand for equal rights and the other an emotional plea for equality. In fact, President Obama is the embodiment of the King’s inspiring oration, but not the personification of the march’s black activism.

There is no question that African-Americans were, and remain, incredibly proud that the nation entrusted its highest office to a black man. Images from the night of the 2008 presidential election reflect the deep, emotional significance of that event. Many remarked that the election served as proof that the American dream was finally tangible, and that it would no longer be dishonest to tell their children they could achieve anything.

His election is, and will forever be, Obama’s most significant contribution to African-Americans. Much as King’s speech provided a moment and a figure that symbolized a people’s heartfelt desire for equality, Obama’s election and two-term presidency updated the dream and positively changed the realm of the possible for African-Americans. Given the nation’s history, America is a renewed, if not new, place for many African-Americans now that a black man sits in the White House. This is not trivial.

Of course, this pride is not limited to one racial demographic. All Americans should be proud that our history has been a steady march toward the inclusiveness that has always been a part of the American idea, if not always evident in practice. No one group owns this achievement, but it’s undeniable that African-Americans rightly have an outsized connection to it.

But just as inspiration has its place, so does activism. There was a sense among African-Americans that once Obama assumed the presidency, he would begin to address the long-ignored ills that have plagued many black communities for decades. Instead, he made very clear early on that his job is to help all Americans by strengthening the middle class and speeding the economic recovery through fair-share, progressive tax and other policies.

For example, when criticized about not doing enough to help African-American businesses, he’s replied, “My general view has been consistent throughout, which is that I want all businesses to succeed. I want all Americans to have opportunity. I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of the United States of America.” And this is exactly correct. Anyone expecting Obama to make the plight of African-Americans the focus of his presidency does not fully appreciate the enormity of the office and issues it must address.

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