I, like most Americans, am very glad for the adulation that Barack Obama is being heaped with in the media and by the public and believe that he can live up to the hype. However, having lived through part of the civil rights movement and remembering exactly where I was when Martin Luther King was murdered, I take some exception to the easy comparisons between these two men. Martin Luther King's legacy is sealed while Barack Obama's is still being formed.
These men are both exceptional, but, for those who don't know, Martin Luther King entered college at the the age of 15 and graduated seminary at the age of 19. He completed his PhD studies at Boston College at the age of 26. Barack Obama, was the editor of the Havard Law Review and graduated Havard at the age of 30, after having been a activist in Chicago for three years.
Martin Luther King was 26 when he joined Rosa Parks and became the spokesperson for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and by 27 formed the Southern Christian Leadership Council that continues even today. By the time that Barack Obama was elected to the Illinois State House at the age of 36, Martin Luther King had visited Mohatmas Gandhi to study his method of non-violent activism, wrote his famous letter from the Birmingham, Alabama jail, helped form CORE, led numerous protests, been named Time's Man of the Year, and received the Nobel Peace Prize.
He also lived long enough to see his work attacked by Malcom X, segregationists, and to be called "the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country" by the FBI (who also had him under constant surveillance).
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed, he turned his attention to the Vietnam War and on poverty and racism. Poverty and a living wage were his cornerstone issues at the time he was assassinated in April 1968.
Certainly President Barack Obama has the opportunity to use his power to address the poor, who are still seeking justice from bad educational opportunities, higher unemployment and incarceration rates, and limited affordable housing. Perhaps he will turn to the teachings of King who said "Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on."
Barack Obama can be a transformational figure in American life, but legacies are formed by the actions that are taken and the wisdom of those actions in uncertain times. Dr. Martin Luther King rose to those times with actions that had a sure-footedness to them. Hopefully, as a politician, Obama will be able to stand firm on those issues that bring justice to those who have been long denied. If he is able to do this, his legacy will be secured.