Martin Luther King's Legacy Remains Alive as African Americans Grapple with New Challenges

President Obama and Race

Obama has not shied away from discourse on race -- he addressed the NAACP in June and jumped into the heated issue of whether Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates was racially profiled by Cambridge police. But the president has tried to draw a clear distinction, emphasizing on several occasions that the economy, which is his main focus, affects everyone in this country.

Experts say that's not a bad idea.

"I think that there is among most African Americans, a real understanding of the differences between racial advocacy and leadership of national public policy," said Marable, on whether blacks had higher expectations from the president because of his race. "Barack Obama is the president of the entire United States...so consequently his focus has to be on all Americans, he's not a black leader."

Even King, the slain civil rights leader, Marable said, "was a leader in the fight for racial justice but was not in a narrow sense a black leader advocating solely for the interest of blacks."

Some argue that race had virtually no role to play in Obama's win.

"He won because the stars were aligned, not because of his race," said Sam Fulwood III, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank. "There was a lot of dissatisfaction with the way the country was going. He seemed to be an alternative to more of the same, that was his campaign message and people bought in to it."

Even though there may be no specific expectations of him when it comes to the African American community, many agree that Obama is expected to show positive results in areas of the economy, including poverty, health care, employment and education. At the same time, more national leaders need to emerge to rally for issues that impact African Americans, such as affirmative action.

"Until people in the bottom organize like we saw in the '60's, it will be the same as we have now," Canton said.

Others say the issues today need to be approached differently in the present era than 40 years ago.

"1963 is a long way away from 2009... and the world is very very different," Fulwood told ABC News. "I personally believe it's a mistake to constantly use Dr. King's speech as a touchstone for everything as it affects every black person in this country."

"I think the vast majority of black people who are alive today were not alive then, and to sort of constantly refer to that moment as the defining moment for what it means to be black in America makes about as much sense as it does to ask white people what it means when George Washington was elected," Fulwood added.

No Turning Back

As minority groups across the country deal with issues of economy, scholars say it is by tackling broader issues that the African American community will benefit.

"We have to find ways to address or deal with structural inequality or the absence of wealth creation problems," Marable said. "The two critical issues are health and wealth."

As for leadership, some historians say the gap between classes within African Americans needs to be filled so that a diversity of leaders can emerge.

"Most politicians do go to Ivy League schools, become lawyers, whereas in the civil rights movement, you could work your way up," Canton said. "Now it's about credentials and networking and going to the right school. ... It's more difficult when you don't have the social capital."

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