White House officials argue Obama's legislative accomplishments on civil rights and economic equality are not insignificant, claiming his policies have aimed to lift everyone, especially African-Americans, even if they have not been singled out. Aides point to the Recovery Act dishing out economic stimulus in the recession to Obamacare's expanded health care coverage to new protections under a federal hate crimes law.
Obama has called for an increase in the minimum wage, more funding for early-childhood education programs, and expanded federal aid for historically black colleges and universities.
Still, on nearly every major socio-economic measure, blacks have faced continued headwinds when it comes to catching up with whites.
"The great majority of African-Americans have shown patience, stuck with Obama even through this terrible recession recognizing the real limits within which he has to operate," said Kennedy. "They have bitten their tongue, not out of complacency, but out of a real, mature grasp of the difficulty he had to face."
In the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the administration has taken new steps aimed at demonstrating its commitment to advancing civil rights and racial equality.
Attorney General Eric Holder, the nation's first black attorney general, announced an end to stiff federal mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders, who are disproportionately black. On Friday, his office ramped up efforts to counter a Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act that activists say undermined rights of minorities. The administration filed suit against a voter ID law in Texas and is eyeing a challenge to a similar law in North Carolina.
"Why so long?" questioned Smiley on the move to curb automatic sentences five years into Obama's presidency. "Better, but not nearly good enough"
"There been more action on these fronts than I had thought there would be," said Kennedy. "But you want to see the follow through and the fine print."
In many ways, Obama's legacy on sustaining King's vision can be summed up in his own words – words he laid out in 2008 with his first major, national speech on race, and words he repeated in his recent remarks on Trayvon Martin.
"We're becoming a more perfect union," Obama said. "Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union."