EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 18, 2009

Obama reminds Merrimack Valley residents of King

Valley residents compare president-elect to slain civil rights leader

By Yadira Betances

NORTH ANDOVER — Forty-five years ago, David Grayer was among the crowd as the late Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

On Tuesday, Grayer and his family will witness another historic event in Washington when President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in as the country's first African-American president.

"I want to be there to feel the spirit, not just for myself, but for my mom and dad," said Grayer, an attorney.

Some local residents compare Obama's qualities to those of King, a minister and leader of the civil rights movement. Grayer said the most obvious similarity is their ability to communicate.

He remembers listening to King speak to a full auditorium and said you could hear a pin drop because they were in awe with what he was saying, without using notes. Grayer said Obama has the same impact.

"It's an inspiration when someone gives a speech and you start thinking of what they said," Grayer said. "When I listen to Obama speak, it makes so much sense."

Lance Bryant of Andover also sees a lot of King in Obama.

"Obama is the embodiment of Dr. King and his whole life is a result of what he did," said Bryant, music director at Andover Baptist Church.

"(His election) gives all of us a lot of hope that this country can live up to its ideals."

Just as King was perfect for his time in bringing stability to a country in chaos over civil rights, Obama is adept at communicating with the younger generation, local residents said.

"Obama is the (Martin Luther) King of today," said Vidra Harris of Methuen, who was a teenager when King was assassinated. "They are both wonderful orators who paint pictures with their words that people can see and spread into action,"

One example is Obama's call to have Martin Luther King Jr. Day recognized as a national day of service.

"That's the best thing we can do because that was his message," she said.

Though she doubted at first that Obama would be elected, Harris was thrilled when he won and will be in Washington to see him inaugurated.

"I was very excited because of the vision that he brings to the country and minorities," Harris said. "For the first time, a black child can look up to a role model in the highest position in the country and can say, 'I can aspire to that.'"

King would have turned 80 last week, and Northern Essex Community College professor Richard Padova of Lawrence said having the inauguration so close to his birthday is significant.

"If King were alive, he'd be crying tears of joy," the political science professor said. "This would have been his best present ever and the best way he would have celebrated his birthday."

Padova, who collects presidential memorabilia, said much of what King said in his speech at the Washington Mall in 1963 "came to fruition with the election of Obama."

"He is an echo of what King was saying," Padova said. "He brought a lot of people and groups together, and showed that we could elect a black president."

But Padova said Obama's victory is not an indication there is no longer prejudice in this country.

"Even though Obama won, it wasn't a complete vindication of the problem of racism and discrimination. It just shows people's attitudes have changed in the past 40 years."

"They wanted something different and he was the perfect messenger, was very eloquent, and had the right persona, temperament and background. "

At 73, the Rev. Franklin Hobbs, pastor of Rehoboth Lighthouse Full Gospel Church in Haverhill, said the bar has been raised with Obama's rise to the presidency.

"We've come a long way ... a dream is accomplished not by the color of your skin, but your abilities," Hobbs said.

Hobbs served in the military for eight years, and had to sit in the back of trains because he was black. The retired sergeant was a medic in Jerusalem, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia during the Korean conflict.

After the service, he graduated from Rutgers University and Texas Southern University. Despite his credentials, he interviewed eight times for the same job as a chemical technician in New Jersey before he was finally hired.

"They said no and I kept coming back," Hobbs said. "I made up my mind long ago to be better than bitter."