Other eulogists, who had known the civil rights icon who refused to take a back seat on a segregated bus, delivered emotional tributes. Obama, then a 44-year-old Illinois senator, kept his comments short, saying he “would not be here today were it not for this small woman.”
Privately, he was frustrated by the event. “Entombed in nostalgia” was how he described it in his memoir. “I’ve never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe,” he wrote in “The Audacity of Hope,” published in 2006.
Almost nine years later, when he speaks next week on the 50th anniversary of civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” address in Washington, President Obama will stand as the heir to a movement defined by race even as he has sought to ensure his presidency is not solely remembered because of it.
Obama’s campaign was designed to transcend race. He asked voters to embrace the Kansas heritage of his white mother and the roots of his Kenyan father and put such divides behind them. In the White House, he’d rarely spoken at length on such matters until a jury’s acquittal in the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin prompted a blunt and emotional assessment of race relations in America that linked him directly to his “tribe.”
“Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago,” the president said on July 19. “I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
It’s that history that will be evoked when the president speaks from the same site where King delivered an address that inspired generations to fight for racial equality. The president’s appearance will be the culmination of a week of events recognizing the anniversary of the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
“Whether he wants the comparisons or not, people will be laying his words side by side with what Martin King said 50 years ago,” said National Urban League president Marc Morial. “But Martin Luther King was a prophet and Barack Obama is a president.”
Throughout his career, Obama has struggled to balance his brand of post-racial politics with his personal experiences of growing up black in America and status as the country’s first African-American president.
“During his first term, he was a president who had spoken less on race than any Democratic president in a generation,” said Frederick Harris, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University and frequent critic of the president.
Despite his public restraint on the issue, aides say the president and his family are aware of their historic burden and of those who went before them.
“I stand on your shoulders,” Obama told Ruby Bridges Hall, who as a child was the first black to enroll in an all-white elementary school in the segregated South, recalled Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president.
“The battles that they fought paved the way for the president’s election,” said Jarrett. “He recognizes that, in the continuum of history, he would not be here but for their efforts.”
During the presidential campaign, Obama became emotional in a rehearsal of his Democratic nomination acceptance speech in 2008, which was held on the 45th anniversary of King’s speech. The president, aides recall, was moved by the symbolism of the moment even though his address made no overt mention of his own race.
Just days before his first inauguration, Obama took his two daughters to the Lincoln Memorial, which honors President Abraham Lincoln, who signed the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in southern states engaged in the Civil War.
“First African-American president,” then 10-year-old Malia Obama said, pausing and adding: “Better be good,” her father recalled publicly afterward.
In the 2008 campaign, Obama argued that that the civil rights leaders of the 1960s fought the toughest, most violent forms of racism. The “Moses generation,” he called them, in a 2007 speech in Selma, Alabama, where white police beat black protesters 42 years earlier. His generation -- the “Joshua generation” - must work to shrink economic disparity, promote education, and fight inequalities in the justice system.
In office, Obama has largely relegated African-American disparities, such as higher than average unemployment rates, under the larger umbrella of economic inequality.
In meetings with civil rights leaders, the president has argued that focusing on minority groups would undermine his ability to win key parts of his agenda, including the health care, said aides who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk publicly about the meetings.
“My general approach is that if the economy is strong, that will lift all boats,” he told a reporter from BET, a network aimed a black audiences, who questioned him on the racial economic gap in an April 2009 news conference. “I’m confident that that will help the African-American community live out the American dream at the same time that it’s helping communities all across the country.”
The president, who keeps a framed photo of the 1963 march in the Oval Office, has often reminded people that the King speech was just as much about economic justice as it was a about civil rights.
Obama’s August 28 speech is expected to continue similar themes, the aides said, stressing the overlap between racial equality and economic mobility. He’s also likely to repeat some of the criminal justice policies he advocated after a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Martin and highlight the importance of building coalitions across race and class, they said.
Obama’s resistance to elevating minority issues rankles some African-American scholars and leaders, who say the president has failed to be forceful enough in his advocacy for black Americans.
“When he left the podium, he still had not answered the most important question, that King-ian question: Where do we go from here?,” said PBS host Tavis Smiley, after Obama’s remarks on the Martin case.
Despite his critics, the black community has remained steadfastly at his side.
Early in his 2008 campaign, Obama courted a rising generation of African-American investment bankers as donors, tapping into a new source of campaign cash that helped him endure the early months of the Democratic primary against then-Senator Hillary Clinton’s more experienced team.
Ninety-five percent of black voters eventually voted for him, turning out in record numbers to the polls. During his re-election, the black turnout rate surpassed that of whites for the first time in history, with entire urban precincts in Cleveland and Philadelphia casting 100 percent of their votes for Obama.
“He stands on the shoulders of those civil rights leaders who marched and fought and died,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic strategist who worked on Obama’s polling team. “You can’t underestimate the cultural and social importance of that to the minority community.”
Even lighter moments can highlight the symbolism of his presidency for his supporters.
In a rare breach of silence surrounding Obama’s 50th birthday bash at the White House in 2011, comedian Chris Rock described a party where entertainers Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder led the dance floor in an electric slide and the president’s daughters did the Dougie.
“I felt like I died and went to black heaven,” he told a Los Angeles audience in 2012. “Think about this [expletive] moment: A bunch of black people doing the [expletive] Dougie in the house that slaves made.”
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