During racially tense moments that have beset the nation recently, many Americans have longed for President Obama to display some of the passion and soaring rhetoric that made the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who would have turned 86 last week, a civil rights legend.

But the messages of restraint Obama has given in response to outcry over police violence are the same ones he has been dispensing for 20 to 30 years, echoes of thoughts he has had ever since he was a young community organizer in Chicago. His central tenets: Don’t give in to anger and violence, work to improve not destroy the legal system, and accept that change will come and things are getting better, albeit more slowly than many would like.

Though Obama’s views have evolved on issues such as gay marriage or national security during his six years in office, his views on race have remained remarkably consistent, and recent events appear to have affirmed rather than altered those views.

The president is likely to touch on race again on Tuesday in his State of the Union address, and if so, he will probably acknowledge that on race, as on the economy, a “resurgent America” has made great progress but still requires greater inclusiveness.

Rather than making pressing demands for economic justice like those that defined King’s crusade, Obama will make a pitch for a tax package that will aid lower- and middle-class households and serve as modest tools for economic advancement for both whites and blacks.

Yet on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, nearly 47 years after the assassination of the civil rights leader, the nation and the president are still struggling with issues of race and discrimination, issues Obama has never denied but has long sought to de-emphasize.

In 2009, Obama replaced a bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office with one of King, but a study by University of Pennsylvania researcher Daniel Gillion found that Obama talked about race less in his first two years of office than any Democratic president at least since John F. Kennedy.

“They share the gift of oratory,” James Campbell, an American history professor at Stanford University, said of King and Obama, “but one of the things that made King’s oratory so indelible is that it never had to be put against the grain of political power.”

Whereas King rode a crest of growing black anger and channeled it into peaceful civil disobedience, Obama came of age as the civil rights movement splintered and dissipated, even as a new generation, Obama’s, moved to leverage its many successes.


King’s speeches in the 1960s were clarion calls for justice, action and civil disobedience. Obama, especially as people feared the possibility of riots in cities across the country, has sounded calls for restraint, lawful demonstrations, commissions of inquiry and slow, steady progress toward reform.

King, who is now marching larger than life across movie screens in “Selma,” fought and won rights — civil rights and voting rights — and paved the way for black political leaders, mayors and congressmen; Obama has tried to figure out how to use those rights as a political leader who happens to be black. In the case of the fatal police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, he could not simply condemn the system; he sits on top of that system. So he praised police in general while calling for reforms to avoid a repeat of the shooting of an unarmed black youth. King was under surveillance by law enforcement officials; Obama has deployed his (black) attorney general to investigate Ferguson.

“It’s important to recognize, as painful as these incidents are, we can’t equate what is happening now to what was happening 50 years ago,” Obama said during an interview on BET, talking about why he wasn’t more aggressive in his statements earlier. “And the reason it’s important for us to understand progress has been made is that then gives us hope that we can make even more progress.”

In “Dreams From My Father,” written when he was still in his early 30s and fresh out of Harvard Law School, Obama distanced himself from those who believed that “the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat.”

And he warned that the outlook of blacks in the late 1970s and 1980s too often “dissipated into an attitude rather than any concrete program, a collection of grievances.”

Instead, a strong strain of optimism had taken hold of him. “We could tell this country where it was wrong, I would tell myself and any black friends who would listen, without ceasing to believe in its capacity for change,” he wrote.

In a passage in his second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” written after his election to the U.S. Senate, Obama seemed to be writing for the exact situation in which he found himself after Ferguson.


“It’s not always easy for a black politician to gauge the right tone to take – too angry? not angry enough? – when discussing the enormous hardships facing his or her constituents,” Obama wrote in the book, published in 2006.

When Obama has spoken directly and bluntly about race, it has sometimes backfired. When a policeman handcuffed and arrested the distinguished scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. on the doorstep of his own home, Obama said the officer acted “stupidly” and inadvertently stirred a national debate on racial profiling. He later sought to defuse it by inviting Gates and the policeman to the White House for beers.

When an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot by a white man who feared Martin was a criminal, Obama was cautious but, in an unusual step, spoke in the voice of a black man rather than the voice of the president. “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son,” he said on July 19, 2013. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”

But in the same remarks, Obama continued to walk a fine line, talking about federal programs, changes in the “stand your ground” laws that protected Martin’s killer, and the responsibility of “those of us in authority.” And he also said, “once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works.” It was all part of “becoming a more perfect union – not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”


The same caution that made him slow to embrace gay marriage has made him unwaveringly cool in his approach to race, choosing to lower temperatures in controversy and to avoid stereotypes of the angry black person who has stalked the pages of American literature and the white imagination.

In his planned speeches – distancing himself from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington – Obama has also stuck to the themes of restraint, reform and progress that are his hallmarks.

Yet if African Americans are looking for signs of progress, they should not look to their economic status, which by many measures lags as far behind whites as they did in King’s day.

The last three years of King’s life, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, were dominated by questions of economic inequality and the Vietnam War, the latter of which King saw primarily as a distraction from the former.

“Bombs in Vietnam explode at home,” King said, after initially staying silent on the war. “They destroyed the dream and possibility for a decent America. It is estimated that we spend $322,000 for each enemy we kill in Vietnam while we spend in the so-called war on poverty in America only about $53 for each person classified as poor.”

In a memorable phrase, King asked, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”

It was the issue of economic dignity that drew King to Memphis in 1968 to support a strike by sanitation workers. King told them, “You are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”

They would be among his last words before being assassinated.