The American political stage onto which Barack Obama entered 40 years later was very different. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley was a fierce opponent of King. His son, Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, became one of Obama’s greatest allies. Dr. King battled for full voting rights for black Americans. Barack Obama relied on mobilizing an existing black voting base within the Democratic Party. Unlike King, Obama did not face an America where acts of racial violence are routine, but he did seek to lead in a toxic political environment that pitted Americans against one another based on identity and ideology. President Obama, like Dr. King, has been severely criticized fo consistently refusing to engage his opponents on the same terms of “verbal violence.”

As early as the Democratic primaries, many Obama supporters desperately wanted him to fight back, to defend himself against what seemed to be racially motivated attacks, and to treat his political opponents as though they were personal enemies. Even as a candidate President Obama’s strategies were much like those of King. He, like King asked Americans to believe that only by absorbing blows and not reciprocating with viciousness can people reveal their attackers for what they are and create a more just world. In doing so he both inspired and frustrated his supporters.

As president, Barack Obama continues to both inspire and frustrate as he develops a form of “nonviolent” political leadership that, at times, feels incapable of achieving victory in a bruising, no-holds barred partisan environment.

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I believe that it is this crucial similarity that propels both men to the top of our experts’ list of black leaders. Dr. King was not victorious in every organizing effort. He often made choices to accommodate opponents. He sometimes cut deals when he thought the best outcome was not possible. He infuriated ideological purists who felt that he too frequently compromised. Certainly, President Obama has not achieved all of his policy goals. He too has anger many who felt that he is too frequently conciliatory. But despite their failures, our experts perceive both King and Obama as worthy of the highest ratings as leaders.

Perhaps this is because both men are leaders who ask us to look beyond the momentary struggle over a particular policy. No matter how critical that policy is to achieving justice, both Dr. King and President Obama remind us that we can only be victorious to the extent that we protect democracy, civility, and ethical engagement with our fellow human beings even as we pursue our goals.

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In the last year of his life King faced a conservative backlash that rested on a white majority who claimed to be weary of the civil rights struggle and concerned that the country was making changes too quickly. King faced a mounting and vocal discontent from young black leaders eager to replace the civil rights movement with a more
aggressive Black Power ideology. He faced a media environment that cast him as simultaneously ineffectively weak and dangerously threatening. He was disheartened by a war that robbed the national coffers of the necessary funds to fight domestic poverty. The current political environment has important parallels for President Obama.

Dr. King recognized the mounting disillusionment of his fellow activists and the danger that it represented to the movement itself. In 1967, he wrote:

The minute hopes were blasted, the minute people realized that in spite of all these gains their conditions were still terrible, then violence became a part of the terminology of the movement in some segments. It is in this context that we must see what is happening now.

Despite these challenges Dr. King’s final speech, delivered in Memphis, Tennessee in support of a sanitation workers strike, refused to cede ground on the issue of non-violence. In that speech King called for Americans to develop a “kind of dangerous unselfishness” that put the good of the collective above individuals concerns.

President Obama similarly understands the political and electoral consequences inherent in the disillusionment his base is suffering because, despite the hope-filled election of 2008, the country still faces economic and international challenges that seem insurmountable. But when faced with the attempted assassination of a Democratic
congresswoman and the collateral death of a half-dozen innocent bystanders, President Obama called the nation to unify and to proceed with greater civility and mutual understanding.

Leaders do not always win, but leaders always call us to believe that we are capable of making something better than what we currently believe is possible. For this ability both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Barack Obama are distinguished as the best among the best.The American political stage onto which Barack Obama entered 40 years later was very different. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley was a fierce opponent of King. His son, Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, became one of Obama’s greatest allies. Dr. King battled for full voting rights for black Americans. Barack Obama relied on mobilizing an existing black voting base within the Democratic Party. Unlike King, Obama did not face an America where acts of racial violence are routine, but he did seek to lead in a toxic political environment that pitted Americans against one another based on identity and ideology. President Obama, like Dr. King, has been severely criticized fo consistently refusing to engage his opponents on the same terms of “verbal violence.”

As early as the Democratic primaries, many Obama supporters desperately wanted him to fight back, to defend himself against what seemed to be racially motivated attacks, and to treat his political opponents as though they were personal enemies. Even as a candidate President Obama’s strategies were much like those of King. He, like King asked Americans to believe that only by absorbing blows and not reciprocating with viciousness can people reveal their attackers for what they are and create a more just world. In doing so he both inspired and frustrated his supporters. As President, Barack Obama continues to both inspire and frustrate as he develops a form of “nonviolent” political leadership that, at times, feels incapable of achieving victory in a bruising, no-holds barred partisan environment.

I believe that it is this crucial similarity that propels both men to the top of our experts’ list of black leaders. Dr. King was not victorious in every organizing effort. He often made choices to accommodate opponents. He sometimes cut deals when he thought the best outcome was not possible. He infuriated ideological purists who felt that he too frequently compromised. Certainly, President Obama has not achieved all of his policy goals. He too has anger many who felt that he is too frequently conciliatory. But despite their failures, our experts perceive both King and Obama as worthy of the highest ratings as leaders.

Perhaps this is because both men are leaders who ask us to look beyond the momentary struggle over a particular policy. No matter how critical that policy is to achieving justice, both Dr. King and President Obama remind us that we can only be victorious to the extent that we protect democracy, civility, and ethical engagement with our fellow human beings even as we pursue our goals.

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In the last year of his life King faced a conservative backlash that rested on a white majority who claimed to be weary of the civil rights struggle and concerned that the country was making changes too quickly. King faced a mounting and vocal discontent from young black leaders eager to replace the civil rights movement with a more
aggressive Black Power ideology. He faced a media environment that cast him as simultaneously ineffectively weak and dangerously threatening. He was disheartened by a war that robbed the national coffers of the necessary funds to fight domestic poverty. The current political environment has important parallels for President Obama.

Dr. King recognized the mounting disillusionment of his fellow activists and the danger that it represented to the movement itself. In 1967, he wrote:

The minute hopes were blasted, the minute people realized that in spite of all these gains their conditions were still terrible, then violence became a part of the terminology of the movement in some segments. It is in this context that we must see what is happening now.

Despite these challenges Dr. King’s final speech, delivered in Memphis, Tennessee in support of a sanitation workers strike, refused to cede ground on the issue of non-violence. In that speech King called for Americans to develop a “kind of dangerous unselfishness” that put the good of the collective above individuals concerns.

President Obama similarly understands the political and electoral consequences inherent in the disillusionment his base is suffering because, despite the hope-filled election of 2008, the country still faces economic and international challenges that seem insurmountable. But when faced with the attempted assassination of a Democratic
congresswoman and the collateral death of a half-dozen innocent bystanders, President Obama called the nation to unify and to proceed with greater civility and mutual understanding.

Leaders do not always win, but leaders always call us to believe that we are capable of making something better than what we currently believe is possible. For this ability both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Barack Obama are distinguished as the best among the best.