Martin Luther King - Barack Obama
Heir to a King?

.© 2008 - Ben Heine
Martin Luther King "dream" lives on,
40 years after death


WASHINGTON -- On April 4 America marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, just as the first black candidate with a viable shot at the White House reinvigorates the late reverend's civil rights "dream."

In 1968 the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr was killed by a single bullet to the head while on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis, in the southern state of Tennessee.

The Nobel peace prize winner was just 39 years old. Had he lived he would have turned 79 in January.

The mystery surrounding his assassination has swirled for years, with escaped convict James Earl Ray convicted of the murder and sentenced to 99 years in prison.

Ray confessed to pulling the trigger, then quickly proclaimed his innocence. Debate over the official version of events, in which authorities determined that Ray had acted alone, remained sharp.

Conspiracy theories abound, with many refusing to believe how or why this unknown convict could have escaped from a Missouri state penitentiary, planned the assassination, and thwarted King's security detail all on his own.

In death King became a martyr in the civil rights struggle, but in life he was a charismatic hero battling for racial equality, from the 1956 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama and non-violent protest marches through to his famous "I have a dream" speech in Washington in 1963.

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,'" King told some 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in the US capital.

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Four words -- "I have a dream" -- thundered through his speech and entered into the American lexicon as symbols of the pursuit of racial equality in America.

Some 40 years later, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's campaign is putting that concept to the test.

The Illinois senator -- the only African American presently in the Senate -- addressed the sensitive race issue directly in a recent speech in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that drew parallels with King.

Obama's remarks were "the most important speech on the question of race and the future of this country since Dr King's 'I have a dream' speech," said Chaka Fattah, a black Congressman from Pennsylvania.

Several other commentators hailed Obama's address as historic.

According to a CBS News opinion poll, 69 percent of Americans approved of the Illinois senator's speech, in which he urged an end to the country's "racial stalemate."

Obama also spoke eloquently about black "anger" and white "resentment" at a time when divisive talk about race threatened to engulf the presidential campaign.

"I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle," Obama said.

"But I have asserted a firm conviction ... that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds," said Obama.

While 52 percent of Americans hailed King's "great influence" on civil rights -- with 75 percent of blacks and 47 percent of whites saying so -- some 39 percent of blacks said the country still had "a long way to go" towards racial equality, according to a survey of 1,012 respondents conducted by Ohio University.

Throughout the country, religious ceremonies and university conferences will celebrate King's legacy, including an event at Tennessee's Vanderbilt University, where longtime human rights advocate and black activist Angela Davis will address the theme "We are not now living the dream" of Martin Luther King.

(The report appeared on

Forty years on, Obama, others
still stand in King's shadow

By John Railey

By the spring of 1968, an exhausted Martin King was often tortured by thoughts that he would be killed. He harnessed his pain and pressed on.

“He grasped the benefit of dramatizing his fight with death - and hence, his people’s fight with social death as victims of oppression,” Michael Eric Dyson writes in his compelling new book, April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Death and How It Changed America.

“King never tired of telling black folk that unearned suffering, even death, is redemptive. … What we make of his death may determine what we make of his legacy and our future.”

Friday will mark the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination on that Memphis hotel balcony. The anniversary has always been a more realistic occasion than the King holiday in January. The holiday is about sweet dreams. The anniversary is about whether America really is moving from nightmares to those dreams. This year, in addition to the big 4-0 number, Barack Obama’s presidential run has given us all the more reason to ponder that question.

Obama, with his mix of black blood and white blood, has forced America into a debate on race. But it’s a debate that often gets dumbed down, just as King’s radical dreams of peace, equality and justice have been dumbed down. King’s hard legacy was quickly wrapped in soft myth.

“Before his body was even laid to rest, Martin Luther King Jr. had slipped into the long night of myth,” Dyson writes. “He quickly became the most overworked martyr since Abraham Lincoln.”

And “martyrdom also forced onto King’s dead body the face of a toothless tiger. … In exchange for collective guilt, whites have given King lesser victories: a national birthday, iconic ubiquity, and endless encomiums,” Dyson, who is black, writes.

“But blacks have not been innocent in the posthumous manipulations of King’s legacy. If whites have undercut King by praising him to death, blacks have hollowed his humanity through worship. … Whites want him clawless; blacks want him flawless.”


Dyson writes about how Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, despite what Dyson depicts as strong efforts, have failed to fully carry out King’s dreams. You think? Dyson could have found a few other black leaders to explore. Regardless of what their inflated egos might lead them to believe, Jackson and Sharpton don’t speak for all black folks any more than James Dobson and Pat Robertson speak for all white folks.

Dyson writes that because “King and Jackson fought bitter battles with ugly forces, Obama can gracefully walk through doors kicked in by King and Jackson.” Jackson did fight those battles, at least in his days as one of King’s lieutenants. But Sharpton’s fighting, often just for the sake of publicity, has accomplished little except to further divide the races.

And how about all the anonymous blacks and whites who paved the way for Obama’s presidential run? Dyson does seem to get that point. “As he walks through those doors, Obama carries the legacy of his people even as he seeks to serve the entire nation. There could hardly be a more fitting tribute to King, and to the people and justice he loved.”

It’s a grand vision, anyway, that suggestion that Obama could sweep into the White House, buoyed in large part on the dreams of another charismatic black leader. For Obama to have made it as far as he has is a huge statement in and of itself about how far we’ve all come.

And regardless of whether we’re backing Obama, we can all hope that 40 years after King’s assassination, a black leader shouldn’t have to worry whether he’ll have all the time he needs to play out his hand, for better or worse. He shouldn’t have to worry that he’ll be killed for the color of his skin in a land that proclaims freedom for all.

(The article appeared on

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