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Politics & Society

Whose 'Dream' Is It Now?

Lester K. Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. He shares his insight on his blog The Future is Here.

Nine days after a gunman opened fire during a "Congress on Your Corner" gathering held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords outside a Tucson grocery store, killing six and wounding 13, the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Ever since his election, many African-Americans see Barack Obama as living evidence of King's dream. Indeed when Obama speaks forcefully, as he did during the memorial held for the victims, he brings to mind King's core themes.

Focused as it was on a celebration of life and a call for civility, Obama's speech harkened back to the idea of nonviolence that was a cornerstone of the civil rights movement. Using Ephesians 6:12 as a basis, Martin Luther King Jr. urged activists to adopt nonviolence because they fought "not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities." And in adopting nonviolence, activists were urged to cultivate an open heart and an open mind. Creating a world in which black children and white children could play, work and struggle together required civility, passion and love. For many who've been looking for Obama to reignite the spirit that drew them to him during the 2008 campaign, his speech on Wednesday gave them hope again. And given the circumstances, Obama very likely looked to Martin Luther King Jr. for guidance.

But to the extent that we look to Martin Luther King Jr. for guidance, there's another lesson that bears learning.

The traditional story about King's ascension connects him to Rosa Parks in a way that emphasizes his leadership from the beginning, when Parks was arrested, to the end, after the boycott was used to jump-start a wider movement. The reality is a bit more complicated.

We now know that Rosa Parks was not simply a tired seamstress, but a formidable organizer in her own right. But Martin Luther King Jr.'s original refusal to open his church for the first organizing meeting is less known. Concerned about the possibility of violence and disrupting the status quo, King relented only after being browbeaten by activists.

After movement activists were finally able to claim victory against the forces of segregation, many felt they could use the energy of the Montgomery bus boycott to end Jim Crow segregation throughout the South. But again, at the outset, King refused, suggesting it was better to pause and reflect. And finally, when Fannie Lou Hamer and members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party sought to be seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in place of the white supremacist Mississippi Democratic delegation, it was Martin Luther King Jr. who urged compromise. At seminal moments it wasn't King who led black men and women, but rather it was black men and women who pushed King to live up to the values he professed to hold.

Our common understanding of King is that he was always right, was always fighting, was always ahead of the people he sought to lead. In reality, not only was he consistently searching; he was on the wrong side of history on at least three occasions before he was (lovingly) pushed in another direction.

Obama's speech urging civility, post-partisanship, and a democracy worth 9-year-old Christina Taylor-Green's love was one of the best speeches of his presidency. We can draw a direct line from his speech back to that delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington. But in thinking about King and Obama hand in hand on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we'd do well to remember the role of everyday people fighting, without compromise for what they believed in, to make King the leader he was called to be.