Exploring Human Potential

President Obama and Martin Luther King: Two Leaders With One Message.

Posted on | January 17, 2011 | No Comments

Mike Magee

As Rev. Martin Luther King approached the podium in front of the Lincoln Memorial, his staff have recalled that he was very satisfied with their planning for the march on that day. Originally intended to terminate at the Congressional steps, the Kennedy administration, which was pursuing the historic Civil Rights Bill at the time, felt this site would be too provocative to members of Congress and lobbied with Civil Rights leaders successfully to shift the venue.

So, as Dr. King shared the same view of the crowds that day along with “The Great Emancipator”, he indeed was pleased, except for one thing. He had hoped that at least 1/3 of the crowd would be white, and by all reports only about 1/4 were.  As we look back a half century later, it is impossible to not marvel at what leadership, personal and individual leadership, can do for a nation. In 2005, another African American, then Senator Obama, on the Senate floor said, “We need somebody who’s got the heart, the empathy, to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenage mom; the empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor, or African American, or gay, or disabled, or old.” (1)  He wasn’t talking about doctors or nurses, although he had, spoken of the “empathy deficit'” in our US health care system. (2)  But this time he was speaking about requirements for nominee for Justice of the Supreme Court.

With the historic passage of a health reform bill on March 21, 2010, there was a sense by those on location in Washington, many of whom had witnessed the events in the 1960’s around civil rights led by another African American leader, that something more fundamental was happening. (3)  And they were right. Yet as with Dr. King, the struggle is not over, and so we find ourselves revisiting that bill. We should not be surprised. This is after all a human endeavor. Governing a nation is not a simple affair, and legislation is about as messy as parenthood.

But President Obama’s eyes are set not simple on a different American health care system. No what he seeks is what Martin Luther King sought, a better America and better Americans. And in pursuing these goals he is seeking from the professions – medicine, nursing, law, education, energy and environmental scientists and others – leaders who are full bodied, well trained, committed, and most of  all empathetic. In each of our individual sectors, he seeks voices that have not only mastered their own areas of expertise, but also the fact that their sector is intimately interwoven with all other sectors and with the fabric of society itself.

Our President is an optimist, a realist and a pragmatist – as was Dr. King. In speaking of the third branch of government, he had this to say:



“The court has to stand up, if nobody else will…. (and support) a broader vision for what America should be.” His former law student, now law professor David Franklin,  described our President’s view this way, “He didn’t seem to really want to talk theory in the classes. He wanted to talk about what worked and what the real-world testing of those theories had yielded.” (1)

None should underestimate our President’s intent – it is not just about health coverage, or Supreme Court nominations, or carbon caps, or charter schools – it is about us. Before and after Tucson, it has been and continues to be about who we are as Americans, what are our ideals, how will we care for each other, and whether we as a nation will reach our full potential. In this way, President Obama has now fully inherited the moral position of Martin Luther King, channeled it into his presidency, and will be using it to full advantage. His goal is not to reform. It is to transform. We should remember that on this special day.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee.

1. Sleven P. Obama makes empathy a requirement for court. May 13, 2009. Washington Post.

2. Obama B. 148th Commencement Address. Northwestern University. June 22, 2006.

3. Pear R., Herszenhorn DM. Obama hails vote on health care as answering the “call of history”. NYT. March 22, 2010.


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