Martin Luther King's Dream for Justice Challenges Obama

PHOTO: Martin Luther King Jr., left, circa 1970s, left, and President Barack Obama Dec. 3, 2012, at the National Defense University in Washington, DPlayMichael Ochs Archives/Alex Wong/Getty Images
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Rev. Joseph Lowery remembers when the 1960s South was burning with racism -- the day a white man walked up to him and stubbed out a lit cigar on his shoulder, when iced tea was thrown in his face, when four young black men were shot with pistols as he led a march against segregation in Decatur, Ala.

"I have been arrested and threatened," he said last week. "Even when I was a little boy, 12 or 13, a policeman hit me in the stomach with his night club. … It makes me hate violence."

At 91, Lowery has lived the civil rights movement, which comes full circle with the re-election and Monday's inauguration of President Obama, coincidentally, but with great symbolism, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Freedom to civil rights pioneer Reverend Joseph E. Lowery in 2009.

Lowery was one of King's closest aides and, in 1957, co-founded with him and Ralph David Abernathy the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which led freedom marches and voter registration drives.

He also delivered the benediction at Obama's first inauguration in 2009, addressing the continued scourge of racism.

"We tend to think of them in the same breath," Lowery, who lives in Atlanta, said of King and Obama. "They are both committed to justice and brotherhood."

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Lowery describes his friend "Martin," who would have been 84 on Jan. 15, as "the most amazing person I have ever known," whose vision was rooted in his faith, a "gift" he also sees in Obama.

"Barack's background was entirely different from Martin's," he said. "But he is touched by human need and suffering and the belief that we have the same moral obligation to care for the needy and bless the poor."

Monday's inauguration kicks off a year of important commemorations that propelled the struggle for equal rights forward: the 150th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation and 50 years since the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Mississippi black activist Medgar Evers.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: A Life in Pictures

Besides comparable oratorical and intellectual gifts, as well as their spiritual faith, Obama and King share a theme of non-violence, Lowery said, which became evident in the wake of last month's Newtown, Conn., school shootings.

The president displayed such a commitment this week when he unveiled a sweeping plan to curb gun violence in America through an extensive package of legislation and executive actions not seen in a half a century.

"That was one of Martin Luther King's themes," Lowery said. "Nothing is more frightening to our future well-being than violence. … God help the nation that stands by and sees its children killed."

Read complete text of MLK's 'I Have a Dream' speech.

But some black leaders have lambasted Obama for not going far enough or fast enough.

Most recently, Princeton professor and activist Cornel West said the president is "obsessed with being on Mount Rushmore," worried more about his "legacy" than enacting change. He provocatively accused Obama last year of being a "Rockefeller moderate Republican in black face."

Lowery agrees that Obama has been "shackled by the political reality of our time" -- a divided Congress and a Republican Party that unilaterally set an unsuccessful agenda to defeat him in 2012.

But of West's comments, he said, "I am amazed that he wants to blame Obama for an issue over which he has no control."

President Obama's first term captured in pictures.

Julian Bond, an adjunct professor of history at American University in Washington, criticized Obama for being "pokey and slow" to create change, a quality he also saw in King.

He was a student of King's at Atlanta's Morehouse College in the late 1950s learning about the then-recent Montgomery bus boycotts in a small philosophy class.

Bond, now 73, led protests that resulted in the integration of movie theaters, lunch counters and parks in Atlanta. In 1960, he was one of the co-founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), leading voter registration drives.

"The movement created the opportunity for there to be an Obama," Bond said. "[King] would be proud as punch to see Obama be president."

But King and Obama, being more than a generation apart, are "two different people," Bond admits, even though Obama shares many of King's beliefs and "both are thoughtful intellectuals."

"My biggest complaint is I want [Obama] to be more forceful and say to the Republicans -- 'It's my way or the highway,'" Bond said. "But I can't imagine him saying that."

Don't Just Sit There: 5 Ways to Honor MLK

In King's hometown of Atlanta, his sister, Christine King Farris, said racism was "still alive and well" and, as her brother cautioned, it might take generations to eradicate.

"The president is doing all that he can do, but change is slow," Farris, 85, who teaches a course in multiculturalism at Spelman College, said.

"My brother wouldn't take credit for anything," she added. "But I am sure he would have been pleased of the slow steps we've made. I just wish he could have lived to see a black man become president of the United States."

Robert Filner, who was recently elected the first Democratic mayor of San Diego in 20 years, said Obama might be a more effective advocate for progressive policies if he returned to his roots as a community organizer.

He forged a coalition of gay rights advocates, small business people and veterans to "hit the ground running" on issues like marriage equality, health care and other civil rights, Filner, who is white, said.

Filner, whose parents were liberal fundraisers, met King at his home in New York City when he was 13. Later, still in his teens, he was jailed in 1961 with black protestors at the notorious Parchman jail in Mississippi who had ordered coffee in an all-white bus waiting room.

He went on to represent California in Congress from 1993 to 2012. Filner said he was one of three congressmen whose vote put Obama "over the top" in the super delegate count at the Democratic convention in his 2012 bid for the nomination.

"I have always dedicated myself to nonviolent social change," Filner, 70, said. "The system still needs our efforts."

But he cautions that those who backed Obama's vision for hope and change "have now gone home.

"The town hall meetings on health care have been taken over by the Tea Party," Filner said. "We should have been there. …We can't leave [Obama] on his own."

Filner, who has worked with both the Clinton and Obama White House, faults the 44th president for being "more aloof."

"Clinton had an enormous capacity to identify with average people," he said. "Obama should be organizing, as opposed to all these media events. … That's what King was all about, organizing.

"They are both great orators," Filner added. "But King was seen as the outsider trying to get in."

The civil rights landscape has also changed, according to Filner. Young people are "looking inward" rather than engaging in civil disobedience.

"It's an economic fear," he said. "We didn't have that sense of economic retribution in the '60s. People today are afraid their career will be hurt."

But Benjamin Jealous, at 39, the youngest-ever president of the NAACP, has more faith when it comes to King's dream of "judging a child by the strength of his character, not the color of his skin."

"This generation that is rising is the most diverse we have ever had in this country," he said. "It's also the most inherently inclusive and the most embracing of racial and gender equality. … It's in their DNA."

The son of a long line of civil rights activists, Jealous successfully fought to help make same-sex marriage legal in Maryland and is working to abolish the death penalty there.

He credits Obama for supporting the undocumented immigrant "Dreamers," "evolving" on gay marriage and working to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," the policy that banned gays from openly serving in the military.

He said Obama's second term is "an important victory for future generations." But he warned that Americans must "keep the pressure on" to rid the nation of racism.

"It's time for us to recognize our children, whether they are poor or of color, they are all of our children," Jealous said. "We, more than any other country on earth, litter our language with difference before we get our nouns of commonality. We literally say 'poor white child' or 'that black child' when we need to say American child when it comes to stopping poverty."

When Obama takes the oath of office Monday with King's "traveling Bible" -- along with a second one that belonged to Abraham Lincoln -- as Americans remember the civil rights leaders's sacrifices, it will be "a moment rich with symbolism," Jealous said.

"One cannot help but feel our ancestors, many of them taken from us without mercy, are looking down from heaven and winking back at us."