When President Barack Obama looks west across the national mall from the Capitol on Monday, his panorama will include the spot to the right where contractors are building the National Museum of African American History and Culture by the foot of the Washington Monument.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial will be to his left, obscured from sight but not from mind.
And, directly in front of him -- across a sea of people who come to hear his second inaugural address -- Obama will have a view of the Lincoln Memorial, the Doric tribute to the president Obama most identifies with and the backdrop for King's most famous civil rights speech.
As he takes the oath of office on the federal holiday marking King's birthday, Obama will place his left hand on a bible once owned by King, an explicit consecration of the often implicit connection between the most prominent leader of the civil rights movement and the first black president.
The comparison between the two men will be inescapable Monday, as will the debate over Obama's treatment of the black community -- a motif that has resurfaced again early in his second term over diversity in the upper ranks of his administration.
Sill, supporters of both Obama and civil rights may find this inauguration even a bit sweeter than the first, and that Obama's tie to King is now stronger.
"If you look at what they're struggling to do," says Hilary Shelton, the director of the NAACP's Washington Bureau, "in many ways it is the same vision, that vision and commitment to help America become all it promises to be."
Greg Carr, chair of Afro-American Studies at Howard University, said Obama's reelection "accentuates" the historic nature of his presidency for the African American community because it validated his time in office.
"What may have had a sense of an insurgent victory four years ago now has more of a national consensus flavor," he said. "With the first inauguration there was almost a sense that ... we did it against improbable odds, but now it's the norm of sorts."
But Obama is still taking the Oath of Office amid criticism that there is not enough diversity among his Cabinet and White House staff. It's the latest round in attacks that Obama hasn't done enough for the black community. His campaign was forced to launch a drive to hire black staff, some African American leaders felt that he paid too little attention to black unemployment rates in his first term, and others worried that he spoke too infrequently about major civil rights issues. Often, the complaints came from black elected officials.
Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), a veteran of the Civil Rights movement and the highest-ranking African American in Congress, said Obama posted a record in his first term that addressed the concerns of African American voters, whether it was a settlement for black farmers, money in the 2009 economic stimulus law directed to poorer communities, or a health care overhaul that will provide insurance for poor folks regardless of the color of their skin.
"When you look at the president's overall record, nobody would call health care a program for the 'black community,' but let me tell you something, that was huge for the black community," Clyburn said in a telephone interview.
The proof, Clyburn said, was in the false prognostications that the president would be beset by lower African American turnout in his second campaign than in his first. "Black people were never disappointed. A lot of black leaders were expressing disappointment with certain things that we may have thought should have been addressed, but the black voter was never disappointed in Barack Obama and he knew that and I knew that."
Rev. Ronald Braxton, senior pastor at D.C.'s Metropolitan AME Church, said the continued faith in Obama among the African American community was apparent when they waited hours in long lines to vote on Nov. 6.
"Look at the long lines of African Americans waiting to vote," he said. "Day and night you couldn't get to the polling places ... it was all across the country. I think that speaks to the optimism of African Americans when it comes to this president."
On a more philosophical note, Harvard professor Tommie Shelby wrote in the winter 2011 edition of the journal Daedalus that Obama's deal-making didn't live up to the moral convictions of King's teaching. If Obama's aim is to improve the lives of minorities rather than establishing racial justice, Shelby wrote, that has merit.
"However, if Obama's racial philosophy is to be understood as an updated version of King's vision - a recalibration to the racial realities of our time-then it leaves much to be desired. Judged alongside King's transformative vision of racial equality and integration, Obama's philosophy is morally deficient and uninspiring," Shelby argued, contending that "it does not keep faith with King's precept: to use means as pure as our ends."
Obama's own reckoning with King's legacy -- and with issues of importance to African Americans -- has been delicate, if not difficult.
In a YouTube video explaining what this inauguration means to him, Obama mentions King and President Lincoln as the two people he admires "probably more than anybody in American history."
"For me to have the opportunity to be sworn in using the Bibles of these two men that I admire so deeply, on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, is I think fitting," he says. "Because their actions, the movements they represent, are the only reason it's possible for me to be inaugurated."
During the 2008 campaign, his references to the Civil Rights leader were clear enough to encourage those who wanted to see him as the embodiment of King's dream and subtle enough to bring peril to anyone who accused of him of exploiting King's work for his own gain.
On the night he lost the New Hampshire primary in 2008, Obama obliquely compared his political organization to King's social movement.
"It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality," he said that night, touching off a nasty dust-up with then-rival Hillary Clinton, who noted to her detriment that it was President Lyndon Johnson, not King, who signed civil rights bills.
At his convention speech in Denver that August, delivered on the 45th anniversary of the March on Washington, Obama quoted King, referring to him not by name but as "the preacher."
"'We cannot walk alone,' the preacher cried, 'And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back,'" Obama said. "At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to march into the future. Let us keep that promise - that American promise - and in the words of Scripture hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess."
As president, he has been more direct in trying to harness the power of King's words and deeds. As he has done in the past, he called on Americans to use this year's King holiday as a day of service, and he invokes King by name from time to time. The opportunity to place his hand on King's bible, which will sit atop a copy that belonged to Abraham Lincoln, adds a tangible connection to the thread that so many Americans see running from Lincoln to King to Obama.
"As an ordained minister, I feel that these two bibles represent the stride for freedom," said Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, in a statement provided by the presidential inauguration committee. "One represents emancipation; the other represents inclusion into the fabric of the American experience -- the freedom to participate in government, the freedom to peacefully coexist, and the freedom to prosper in life."
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