Opinion: Echoes of King, Kennedy, Lincoln


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Barack Obama’s victory speech in Chicago carried historic echoes of speeches past. He quoted from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural, and referenced as well John F. Kennedy’s inauguration address. But his most resonant words tied this moment in history directly to a third martyred leader, Martin Luther King Jr., and the fight for civil rights for African Americans that reached its full flowering at about the same time Obama was born.

He did not mention King’s name, but those familiar with the words as well as he deeds of the era knew that Obama was making direct correspondences to King’s legacy and promise. He appeared to be suggesting, further, that in his election the promise has been fulfilled.


For anyone who doubted that in America all things are possible, the president-elect said at Grant Park, ‘tonight is your answer.’

‘It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long, by so many, to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve ... to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.’

‘The arc of history.’ It is a direct reference to one of King’s most riveting lines, spoken in Montgomery, Alabama after the long and dangerous march from Selma in March, 1965. King said he knew people were asking how long it would take to achieve justice. ‘How long?’ he asked, over and over, making listeners desperate for an answer -- and then he supplied the answer.

‘How long? Not long. Because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ It was a refrain King came to use often, sometimes referring to the ‘arc of history,’ sometimes to the ‘arc of the moral universe.’

Again, Obama: ‘It’s been a long time coming. But tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this moment, change has come to America,’ putting stress on the word ‘this,’ and reminding Americans who were at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, as well as those who have grown up listening to recordings of King’s ‘I have a dream speech’ from the March on Washington, of the closing rhythmic exhortation that faith in justice would help African Americans win equality.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.


Obama: ‘The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term. But America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you. We as a people will get there.’

The climb will be steep -- it is a direct, almost chilling, reference to King’s final speech, the night before his murder. Like Moses climbing the mountain to glimpse the promised land, King preached that he might not get there with his people.

‘But I want you to know tonight,’ King said, ‘that we as a people will get to the promised land.’

It was the most emotional part of Obama’s speech - the reference to the promise that ‘we as a people’ will get there. Obama was not speaking, as King had, just to African Americans, but was able to speak to all Americans, in part because King’s dream that black and white would join together had, at least for the moment, been realized. The president-elect was interrupted at that point by chants of the campaign phrase that has nothing to do with Lincoln, Kennedy or King, but is his own:

‘Yes we can, yes we can, yes we can.’