President Barack Obama and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have both been praised for their sweeping rhetorical skills, an ability to seize the moment and provide the comfort and inspiration needed. Even their detractors — and they have plenty — would admit this. To live up to his own history, President Obama had a nearly impossible task in his farewell speech on Tuesday night from his adopted hometown of Chicago.
There was also the irony of the week to come, bookended by a celebration of the life and works of King and the inauguration of the next president, Donald Trump. After all, few would place “I have a dream” and “She should be in prison” in the same universe of lofty oratory.
Would President Obama’s farewell look back at accomplishments and might-have-beens or forward to what’s next for him and the country? Would he express his thoughts on the transition to a President Trump? In truth, President Obama tried to do all of the above, as he returned to the message that won him the presidency, one that King would have endorsed — hope.
But while the president might have begun his eight years in office with a measure of naivete, he ended with a dose of realism on the challenges of progress in a country still divided in too many ways. He spoke about the fault lines of race, of economics, of the very way we interact with those with whom we disagree.
He called on We the People to step up, recalling the promise of the words in the founding documents that King always challenged America to live up to. “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted,” the president said, as a statement, warning and call to action. He could have been channeling King, who never lost his belief in the possible, but he also seemed weary at the difficulty of the task ahead.
What would King have thought of this man he could only envision occupying the nation’s highest office at the time when he and a legion of others were thrown in jail, protesting for basic civil rights for all Americans?
King definitely would be amused to see the same politicians who ran on and reveled in obstruction of every move of the first African-American president of the United States trip over themselves in praise of the civil rights leader, albeit one whose image is smoothed out, as stoic as the granite statue erected to honor him in a Washington park. The restless, prodding warrior for justice who was a controversial figure up to and after his 1968 assassination is far too complex a figure to appeal across a widening partisan divide, so better to erase the fire from his legacy.
It is always a disconnect when politicians who have been divisively and derisively at each other’s throats join hands and pause mid-January to pay tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with words of racial and political reconciliation.
But this year the hypocrisy runs particularly thick.
Days after one celebration comes Trump, the businessman candidate who made his political bones denying the American-ness of President Obama, and was rewarded with the presidency. Trump’s followers and enablers paved the way and followed his lead, opposing, disrespecting and refusing, in just one example, to even consider the sitting president’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.
This year, we will no doubt again hear the most quoted King speech, especially the oft-repeated phrase of looking forward to the day when his four children would “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
What does character mean in a year when what used to be considered common courtesy was derided as “political correctness,” when insulting slogans became chants used as cudgels against opponents? Judged by that standard, King’s belief that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” sounds quaint.
Obama echoed that sentiment when he spoke on Tuesday of the “sacred ties” that make us one: “We weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character are turned off from public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are not just misguided, but somehow malevolent.”
Words do matter, and can be weapon or balm.
President Obama understood when he stepped into the unfortunate role of consoler in chief, as all presidents must, in a Charleston community in shock from a racist hate crime or a Dallas in mourning for brave police officers killed while performing their extraordinary, ordinary job.
Will King’s annual day cast a long shadow on the man who sometimes behaves as though he would be America’s king? A combative Trump press conference on Wednesday showed it will be a reach.
King knew it would not be easy: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. … Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.