Bringing Birmingham to the millennium

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Editor’s note: President Barack Obama gave his second inaugural address on Jan. 21, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He mentioned the man whom the federal holiday honors only once in his speech, referring, as he spoke from the Capitol to “all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.” But the sentiments of the civil rights leader were present as the president gave his speech and called for broadened equal rights. We selected some choice parallels shown below between one of King’s most famous essays and Obama’s rhetoric. 

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

— Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963

   “That is our generation’s task — to make these words, these rights, these values — of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness — real for every American. Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way, or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time ... We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, we must act knowing that our work will be imperfect.”

— President Barack Obama, Second Inaugural Address, January 2013

 “[W]hen these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage.”

— Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963

“For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished and always safe from harm.”

— President Barack Obama, Second Inaugural Address, January 2013