It was April 3rd, more than 40 years ago, that Dr. Martin Luther King told a Memphis audience that he had been to the mountain top. He prophetically said, “…I’ve looked over and seen the Promised Land. I may not get there. But I want you to know … we as a people will get to the Promised Land.” The next day he was killed by an assassin’s bullet.
What Dr. King could never have predicted or even dreamed, was that all these years later Barack Obama, a black man, would be elected president of the United States – nothing could have been more indicative of reaching the Promised Land to Dr. King. In one of the most troubled times in American history, with an economic collapse and escalating wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, Obama will be sworn in on January 20th, as president. Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt has a president come to office facing such domestic and international dilemmas.
And, Obama, a man with a cool, seemingly unflappable demeanor, comes to office at the right time. He follows a disengaged President Bush whose cavalier international adventuring effectively destroyed much of this country’s stature abroad and stimulated the recruitment of radical Islamic terrorists. In the Arab word, the escalating Israeli war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, is seen not an Israeli attack, but an American offensive. The heart-rending photographs on the front pages of most American newspapers and network television news programs of Palestinian children suffering and dying in the Israeli attacks are only a small sample of the proliferation of similar photographs and television reports of the carnage of non-combatants seen in the Arab world. These same photographs are perceived in the Arab world as another example of American perfidy in its war on Islam.
In addition to the seemingly insurmountable economic crisis, President Obama will have to deal with this deep-seeded hatred the Bush Administration’s Middle East policy has exacerbated. For Obama, the challenges seem insurmountable, while the expectations for success are dangerously high. This President will have a short honeymoon and will direct one of the busiest Administration’s in recent history that includes such festering conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the growing threat of a nuclear Iran. It will help that President-elect Obama is a man of color with a decidedly non Anglo Saxon name. The simple fact of his unexpected election stunned much of the world and raised the esteem of the United States abroad in ways that are yet to be understood. But now, he has to deliver. He has an opportunity to succeed on the world stage, mostly because there is a desire that he will succeed. It is possible that desire will give him an edge that few incoming presidents have ever had. It remains to be seen if that will be enough of an edge.
On January 20th, a vast world audience will be watching and listening to President Obama’s Inaugural Address. There will most likely be a Kennedy-like call for national sacrifice, but he will also speak out across the assembled millions crowding the capital to that world audience, and talk of the need for a resolution to the Palestinian problem that has troubled the world since the creation of Israel in 1948. Like most of his speeches, it will undoubtedly be inspiring, but for many Americans who watched the painfully slow, often frightening and dangerous civil rights movement, there will be tears – tears of happiness in recognition of the accomplishment of Martin Luther King’s mountain top dream realized. It will not be the Promised Land of King’s soaring rhetoric, there is no such place, but it will be an affirmation of an America facing the reality of an ugly racial past with the realization that it can be better and that in such perilous times an inspirational, committed President Obama is a man who can speak to the world in a new and different way, and that in itself evokes some reassurance and comfort. And that may be part of what King meant that fateful night in Memphis.