Fall 2010

From Martin Luther King, Jr., to Barack Obama


David W. Wills (Section 01)


    The election of Barack Obama has raised many questions, among them these: How much and in what ways has the place of race in American public life changed since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s? Did the 2008 presidential campaign show how far we have come in escaping old racial loyalties and animosities or did it make clear how much they endure? How and to what extent has the Obama presidency carried forward the legacy of the civil rights movement in general and Martin Luther King, Jr., in particular. In what ways are issues of race entangled with those of religion in the United States--and how much has this changed in the last fifty years? What was the role of the black churches in the civil rights movement and what is the political role of those churches today? How has the place of Islam in African American religious life--and in American religious life generally--changed since the mid-twentieth century and what difference does that make for American politics? What is the relation, both past and present, between political activism tied to African American religious groups and the political mobilization of such other religious groups as evangelical Protestants? What is the relation between grassroots protest movements and electoral politics in effecting social change in the United States? How do the media shape the ways in which both race and religion appear--and disappear--in American public life?

    In exploring these questions, this course will take as its point of departure a comparison of the public careers of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama. We will examine their life histories, the development of their political and religious ideas, and their rhetorical strategies as writers and speakers. We will investigate the ways in which each--as any African American leader must do--positions himself both within black America and within American public life generally. We will note their relations to black allies and rivals and the strategies of each in forming wider coalitions--and the connection  of these coalitions to electoral politics. The course will also attempt to place both King and Obama in a wider historical context, in part by examining some of the major trends and landmark events occurring in the period between King’s assassination and Obama’s election, e.g., the establishing of the King national holiday and the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson.

     The course will be primarily discussion-based. Our goal will be to examine aspects of contemporary political life and the heated debates they occasion without succumbing to partisan sloganeering, a shallow present-mindedness, uncritical credulity about the prevailing public discourse, or cynical indifference. Readings will includes writings by King and Obama, historians’ accounts of the civil rights era and its aftermath, social scientific analyses of recent American voting patterns, and contemporary news accounts and opinion pieces about the Obama presidency. There will be multiple writing assignments, mostly short, designed to foster students’ skills as both discerning readers and disciplined writers.

 Fall semester. Professor Wills.


2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010