January 20, 2009 | Phill de Haan

The Calvin community marches to Chapel to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr.'s historic walk.

MLK Day Events from Calvin College on Vimeo

On a day to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the day before the inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation's first black president, a variety of events at Calvin took a closer look at both King and Obama, their similarities and their differences.

Dr. Harold Dean Trulear, the January Series speaker for the day, began his talk at 12:35 p.m. on January 19, just 24 hours prior to the swearing in of Obama as the 44th United States president.

His topic was "Beloved Community and Restorative Justice: Toward a Recovery of an Ethic of Restoration in the Churches' Response to Crime and Criminal Behavior." But when he wrapped up his remarks 75 minutes later he had covered a wide range of subjects, including how King and Obama sound some of the same notes, but also where they leave each other's company.

King and Obama: similarities and differences

"The convergence of January 19th and January 20th this year calls for an interpretive response from many," he said. "In both men we have gifted orators and imagery in their speeches that calls for unity."

However, said Trulear, one significant point of departure between King and Obama comes in how they talk about hope. King, he said, spoke of hope as a reality to be expected because King saw himself first and foremost as a Christian preacher. He had a hope grounded in his Christian faith and there was never any doubt as to where his hope rested when he spoke.

Obama, said Trulear, is a politician, not a preacher, and his words reflect that. In fact the difference between preacher and politician is a stark one said Trulear.

"King was not popular," he reminded the audience in the Fine Arts Center. "He serves as a popular icon today but he was not popular among white Americans and he was devisive even in black America. He felt compelled to be prophetic."

Because he is a politician, he said, Obama has mastered the art of compromise.

"Compromise," Trulear said simply, "was not part of King's vision."

Beloved community and prisons

What was central to King's vision, said Trulear, was the idea of a beloved community. Writing about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King said its purpose was reconciliation, redemption and the creation of the beloved community. That is why, said Trulear, he believes that if King were still alive, his focus would be on the nation's prison system, specifically how the U.S. ensures that prisoners leave prison to become productive members of society, members of the beloved community.

"The reintegration of men and women into society would be the Civil Rights movement of 21st -century society for King," he said.

The January Series talk by Trulear, a professor of applied theology at Howard University School of Divinity and president of Globe Community Ministries in West Philadelphia, came in the middle of a day of MLK activities at Calvin.

Multitude of MLK Day events

The honoring of King began at 9:40 a.m. with an MLK March, led by Calvin president Gaylen Byker, from Calvin's new Spoelhof Fieldhouse Complex to the Chapel, where that day's service focused on King's life and legacy.

The day ended at 3:30 p.m. in the Library Lobby in front of a warm fire where a panel discussion featured Calvin professors Garth Pauley, David Hoekema and Mwenda Ntarangwi. Moderated by Jacque Rhodes the assistant dean of multicultural student development, the topic of the panel was "Hopes and Dreams: Connections between President Obama and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr."

That discussion picked up on several of the themes sounded by Trulear during his January Series talk a few hours earlier and also tilled some new ground.

Pauley, an expert of presidential rhetoric, noted that when Barack Obama made his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention he did so on the 45th anniversary of the March on Washington. Yet the speech Obama gave, said Pauley, was more reminiscent of Lyndon B. Johnson's March 1965 address to Congress, now known as the "We Shall Overcome" speech.

"Obama's speech," he said, "was more of an American promise speech, reinvigorating people's sense of America. I found that very interesting."

Would King be ignored?

Ntarangwi, a professor of anthropolgy, wondered, on a day that brought two pivotal U.S. political figures into such close juxtaposition, what might happen had King survived his assassination attempt and thus would be around today to give Obama advice.

"When people are alive," he said, "they tend to be more easily ignored. Would King today be a rabble-rouser who could be ignored?"

And Hoekema, a professor of philosophy, wondered what King would think about Obama, and how Obama might be able to lead the U.S. on issues of race at the turn of the century.

"He's not African, hyphen, American," said Hoekema. "He's African, comma, American. That's a different experience."

All agreed that the combination of King Day and the inauguration made for an exciting confluence of events.

"I'm looking forward to tomorrow," said Rhodes.

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