When he moved into the Oval Office, Obama changed little of the room’s decor, Remnick wrote. The biggest alteration was installing busts of King and Abraham Lincoln in place of a bust of Winston Churchill (which was returned to the British government, which had loaned it to President George W. Bush).
“For Obama, the black freedom struggle defines not just the African-American experience, but the American experience itself,” Remnick wrote.
Thus, Americans shouldn’t be surprised Monday when Obama places his right hand on bibles belonging to King and Lincoln when he is inaugurated for his second term. Fittingly, Obama, the United States’ first black president, will take the oath of office on the same day the nation honors King’s legacy with a federal holiday.
Obama told the author, “There is a certain awe that I continue to hold when I consider the courage, tenacity and audacity of the civil-rights leaders of that time. They were so young. That’s what always amazes me. King was 26 when Montgomery starts. At the height of his fame and influence, he’s in his mid-30s. I mean, he’s a kid. And that was true for all these leaders.”
Obama’s legacy remains incomplete; his second term is before him. But King’s complicated place in American history is cemented in the foundations of equality and fairness. It’s safe to assume that without King’s influence on the civil rights movement, the thought of a black family residing in the presidential quarters of the White House in the first part of the 21st century would be unimaginable.
If given the chance, there is so much journalists and historians would love to ask King if he were here today. Presumably, he’d be overjoyed at the gains in racial equality and political opportunities. Likewise, he’d surely be pained by the lingering racism and economic and educational struggles still felt in the nation’s poorest black communities.
If here today, King would see an America — despite its faults — that is a better place than the one he left when an assassin’s bullet killed him in 1968.
It’s impossible not to think of King, and the movement’s other key players, when Obama takes his second oath of office. Amid all of our troubles, it’s easy to lose sight of how far our nation has come.