President Obama was only 2 years old when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, but America's 44th president has said that King's legacy has inspired him throughout his life. Over the years, Obama has mentioned King in his speeches, essays, and books, always using the civil-rights activist and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner as a paragon for his fellow Americans.
On June 28, 2006, then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., delivered an address to the Call to Renewal conference sponsored by Sojourners, a Christian progressive organization. During the speech, Obama talked religion and politics, and pointed to King as one of the "great reformers in American history."
He used King as an example—along with Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, and Dorothy Day—of a "believer" who was motivated by faith and religion, and stated that secularists are wrong to ask believers to denounce their religion before entering the public sphere. He suggested that, since our law is "by definition a codification of morality," it is absurd to expect men and women in our government to shed their personal faith. Moreover, he argued that religion and spirituality can be a platform for both religious and secular leaders to discover overlapping values.
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Obama wrote those same words in his book, The Audacity of Hope, published in 2006. He briefly mentions King in his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, in the context of a conversation he had with a pastor named Philips. The pastor, Obama writes, discussed one of King's visits to Chicago, and the jealousy he witnessed firsthand among some of King's fellow ministers.
On November 13, 2006, Obama commemorated King at the groundbreaking ceremony for the memorial to the civil-rights leader on the National Mall. He said that although King never served in office, he led a nation and gave his life to serve others.
"Through words [King] gave voice to the voiceless," Obama said. "Through deeds he gave courage to the faint of heart. By dint of vision, and determination, and most of all faith in the redeeming power of love, he endured the humiliation of arrest, the loneliness of a prison cell, the constant threats to his life, until he finally inspired a nation to transform itself, and begin to live up to the meaning of its creed."
As a presidential hopeful in 2008, Obama spoke at New Ebenezer Church, King's former church in Atlanta, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He quoted King's words of urgency on the eve of the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Ala.: "Unity is the great need of the hour." Obama called on the American people to join together to counter the "moral deficit," the "empathy deficit," that exists in our country.
"I'm taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another," he said, "to understand that we are our brother's keeper; we are our sister's keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, 'We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.' "
Although Obama did not mention King in his nomination acceptance or inauguration speeches, just before taking office Obama wrote an essay for The Washington Times commemorating King. In the piece, which appeared on January 18, 2009, Obama called his inauguration "the most open and accessible in our history, with the sole purpose of involving more citizens than ever before," pointing to the fact that for the first time, the entire length of the National Mall was opened for the inauguration. He wrote that the inauguration is also a celebration of "the life of a preacher who once stood and shared his dream for America" on the very Mall [where] the American people gather for the swearing-in of the President. Obama called on American citizens to honor King's life through commitment to enriching the lives of their fellow citizens through service projects, technology, and efforts to unite.
On that same day, the Sunday before his inauguration, Obama was present at an event at the Lincoln Memorial, the site of King's "I Have a Dream'' speech. The ''We Are One'' concert featured performers such as will.i.am, Bruce Springsteen, and U2, which played its MLK tribute, Pride (In the Name of Love).
"Let freedom ring,'' U2 singer Bono cried when taking the stage. "On this spot where we're standing, 46 years ago Dr. King had a dream. On Tuesday, that dream comes to pass.''