Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

 

AS THE ADMINISTRATION of President Barack Obama comes to a close and the inauguration of the next commander-in-chief looms, this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day takes on added significance. The occasion is particularly symbolic for the first black President of the United States.

When President Obama assumed office in 2009, he brought a bust of King by Charles Alston into the Oval Office, where it is displayed adjacent to a bust of President Lincoln. Alston made five casts of the bust in 1970 and one of them was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, according to the Smithsonian. The institution loaned the sculpture to the White House in 1990, becoming the first image of an African American to be displayed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The bronze bust is nearly 13 inches high and is mounted on a marble base. It initially stood in the library.

Over the past nearly eight years, when the President has met with world leaders in the Oval Office sitting in a pair of chairs in front of the fireplace, the King sculpture has been in view, often captured in photographs over the visiting official’s shoulder.

Last year, during a press conference with Prime Minister David Cameron in London, President Obama was asked about the presence of the King bust in the Oval Office. He said, “I thought it was appropriate, and I suspect most people here in the United Kingdom might agree, that as the first African American president it might be appropriate to have a bust of Dr. Martin Luther King in my office to remind me of all the hard work of a lot of people who would somehow allow me to have the privilege of holding this office.”

“As the first African American president it might be appropriate to have a bust of Dr. Martin Luther King in my office to remind me of all the hard work of a lot of people who would somehow allow me to have the privilege of holding this office.” — President Obama


The Record: President Obama on Social Progress and Equality | Video by The White House

 

THIS WEEK, PRESIDENT OBAMA made another symbolic gesture, designating three historic sites as national monuments recognizing the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, the work of King and so many other brave pioneers who fought for equality and justice in America, and the significance of black churches in the movement for change.

The action protects the historic A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Ala., which served as King’s headquarters, and will contextualize the city’s civil rights history by telling the stories of other sites including the 16th Street Baptist Church; the Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Ala., including the Greyhound station where a bus of activists was attacked and the nearby site where the same bus was firebombed and burned; and a new Reconstruction Era National Monument encompasses four sites along coastal South Carolina (including Brick Baptist Church), the first designation in the National Park Service to focus on the under-appreciated story of Reconstruction.

He also issued his last proclamation declaring King’s birthday a federal holiday. The document reads in part:

    “Those who dismiss the magnitude of the progress that has been made dishonor the courage of all who marched and struggled to bring about this change—and those who suggest that the great task of extending our Nation’s promise to every individual is somehow complete neglect the sacrifices that made it possible. Dr. King taught us that ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.’ Although we do not face the same challenges that spurred the Civil Rights Movement, the fierce urgency of now—and the need for persistence, determination, and constant vigilance—is still required for us to meet the complex demands and defeat the injustices of our time.”

The proclamation concludes with wise words for this unprecedented moment in America’s history: “Only by drawing on the lessons of our past can we ensure the flame of justice continues to shine. By standing up for what we know to be right and speaking uncomfortable truths, we can align our reality closer with the ideal enshrined in our founding documents that all people are created equal. In remembering Dr. King, we also remember that change has always relied on the willingness of our people to keep marching forward. If we do, there is no mountaintop or promised land we cannot reach.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: Dec. 1, 2014, “Following the outcry over the shooting of Michael Brown by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, the President invited young civil rights leaders to a meeting in the Oval Office. Many of them had protested in Ferguson. A 30-minute scheduled meeting last more than an hour. As the meeting broke up, the President continued the conversation for a few minutes and I then managed to frame the bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the foreground.” | Official White House Photo by Pete Souza