Barack Obama was two years old when Martin Luther King -- standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial -- declared, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Mr. Obama's generation is the generation on which Dr. King's hopes were riding. It is not too much of a stretch to conclude that -- even after "the searing injustice" in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina -- King, upon hearing Obama's speech in Philadelphia, would have nodded in agreement: "I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together -- unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we have common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all have to move in the same direction -- towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren."
But Obama did more than reaffirm King's core conviction. He was more than a spokesman for his race. He illustrated what I have returned to more than once in this space: he showed that he has the ability to get inside the skins of people on both sides of the racial divide and truly understand their grievances.
Speaking of his pastor's racial intolerance, he reminded his audience that Jeremiah Wright grew up in an era when "legalized discrimination -- where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force or the fire departments -- meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations." In that context, said Obama, Mr. Wright's anger and intemperance were understandable, if not condonable.
But then Obama turned his attention to white families whom affirmative action policies have disadvantaged. "Most working and middle class white Americans," he declared, "don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience -- as far as they 're concerned no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pensions dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures and feel their dreams slipping away . . . ."
In that context, said Obama, "when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time."
No one, to my knowledge, has ever tackled the problem of race in America from the perspective of Mr. Obama. His opponents have tried to make his lack of experience his Achilles' heal. The question is, "Which experience, and how critical is it?" It would appear that Mr. Obama's experience has been particularly unique and -- I suggest -- absolutely critical.
Whatever he and his countrymen have been asked to face, they have always been citizens of a nation divided -- fundamentally divided by slavery and its legacy. If the United States is to survive the brave new world of global terrorism -- which, at root, is the result of the same kind of cultural schism which led to a Civil War and segregation -- it will have to heal itself. Martin Luther King knew that. That's what King saw from "the mountain top." He knew that, like Moses, he would not make it to the promised land. But he hoped that his children would. Mr. Obama's run for the presidency is a sign that Dr. King's children have arrived.