Rev. Al Sharpton says President Obama Is No Civil Rights Leader Like Martin Luther King, Jr.

On this, black civil rights leaders agree: President Barack Obama isn't the second coming of Martin Luther King Jr.
It's tempting to compare the two men - "inevitable," the New York Times said this week - but allies and some critics in the black community say Obama is not the leader of a movement. Instead, Obama is playing a different role in a different time.

"Do I think he's a civil rights leader? No," said Al Sharpton, who has become close to Obama in part because they are of the same post-movement generation. "I think he'd be the first person to tell you that."

So when Obama settles into King's footsteps at the base of the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday, half a century after the 1963 March on Washington, black leaders will be listening not for the inspirational rhetoric of a civil rights icon but for the substance of a president.

"Those are two different roles," said Jesse Jackson, who has had his differences with Obama. "What we needed from Dr. King was motivation and vision. What we need from the president is appropriation and legislation."

In other words, Obama is more Kennedy than King. Obama's background is in organizing but he never promised or sought to be a King-style leader. Indeed, of all the things King envisioned in his famous refrain -- "I have a dream..." -- a black president was not one of them. In that way, Obama is blazing a trail that wasn't publicly contemplated when the original civil rights generation pressured presidents to secure access to public accommodations, voting booths, and housing.

"The Civil Rights Movement is what created the opportunity to pave the way for the United States to be able to elect the first African American president," said Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. "So, he stands on the shoulders of those who paved the way, but he also recognizes that as president of the United States he has an enormous responsibility as well to continue - to use Martin Luther King's words - moving the arc of the moral universe, to bend it toward justice."

Much as Obama treads on new ground, the election and re-election of a black president have forced contemporary black civil rights leaders to confront a challenge that was hard to foresee half a century ago: Their activism is aimed at a fellow person of color.

At times over the past five years, the calculus for civil rights leaders who hope to prod the president to act on a range of issues has proven difficult. Obama has received overwhelming support from black voters in two elections, meaning the leaders of civil rights organizations are risking their own standing if they take him on. There's also the danger that they could hurt the president politically by challenging him publicly. At the same time, Obama's willingness to work around some of those leaders has caused consternation that is typically discussed only in private settings.

Obama has elevated Sharpton and his National Action Network by having one-on-sessions with the MSNBC television host and inviting him to group meetings with leaders of longer-standing civil rights organizations such as the NAACP.

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