What would Dr. King say to, and about, President Obama?
“On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?" ― Martin Luther King Jr.
As the commemoration and celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth approaches, many people, especially black Americans, like to think of President Obama as the fulfillment of Dr. King’s famous “dream.” They see Obama’s presence at the pinnacle of American power as the ultimate victory of our protracted struggle for freedom within this nation-state.
For far too many of us, President Obama has assumed the role that Dr. King presumably held – the H.N.I.C. (Head Negro In Charge). That “position” had been first developed, assumed, shaped and perfected by the great abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass; then Booker T. Washington (the first great “compromiser,” conciliator, and accommodationist). Following Washington’s death, the black “separatist” Marcus Garvey took up the mantle in the 1920s until the 40s.
In the 1960s, Malcolm X picked up where Garvey left off, and as a contemporary of King, challenged the whole notion of racial “integration” as a worthy objective for America’s “22 million Afro-Americans.” And then came Dr. King. (Other, lesser lights, have flickered on and off over the years, of course. But ever since 1865, it has been primarily, if not only, these five “great men” who have, for the most part, defined, determined, and directed the “black agenda” of America’s now 40 million-plus black people.)
And now? Again, what would Dr. King say about President Barack Hussein Obama?
Would he agree with most black folks today that Obama is the embodiment, the personification of his “dream”? Or would he side with Dr. Cornel West and others who argue that the president has subverted and perverted all that King lived and finally died for?
King would answer these questions based not on the president’s rousing and articulate rhetoric – but on his actual policies and practices. Have Obama’s policies and practices, he would ask, helped the poorest of the poor, the “least of these”? Or has his obsession with “the middle class” allowed him to ignore these people? That is, has Obama provided the methods and means for those who constitute America’s now permanent “underclass” to achieve middle class status? If, King might say, full and complete social, political, and economic integration of all citizens is the ultimate goal of the “beloved” society, why at all does “social class” persist in defining and determining one’s “station” in American life?
To be sure, Dr. King would celebrate right along with the rest of the country the fact that just enough Americans came together to overlook “color,” or the absence of color, as the main qualifier for the presidency. He would also be gratified to see the many other black and brown faces in high places peppered throughout the American socio-political and economic milieu.
But, again, he would also condemn and decry Obama’s obvious refusal to directly address the plight of the poor – of whatever color. He would charge that Obama’s constant political calculation of “the peoples’” rights versus his insistence on “bipartisanship” and “compromise” with evildoers and reactionaries – he would see these as a direct betrayal of all that he lived and died for. Recall, if you will, that Dr. King was assassinated while trying to bring a modicum of economic justice to garbage workers in Memphis, Tenn.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not compromise with evil. And he called out and identified evil wherever and whenever it appeared. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed, understood, knew that racial discrimination and segregation were evil twins. Dr. King believed, understood, and knew that poverty’s mere existence in a top-heavy affluent America was an unmitigated evil. And, Dr. King needed no “soul searching” moments in which to not just decide, but to act against evil.
Indeed, many thinkers argue that it was Dr. King’s final and very public stance against the evil that was America's war against the people of Vietnam and elsewhere that finally got him killed. By contrast, although both men were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama has embraced America as a militarized “national security state,” and conducted and expanded with an unseemly gusto the very same wars and foreign “incursions” he once decried as a candidate for the presidency. His “ending” of the Iraq War has turned out to be in name only, while the Afghanistan debacle continues to take both American and Afghani lives. Obama's continued "droning" of Pakistani civilians as "collateral damage," and his unconscionable forays into the African continent itself would dishearten Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. "The Man" has now even re-authorized the surveillance and detention of American citizens without charge or trial.
So, I am certain that Dr. King would not be pleased with President Obama. Indeed, he would be leading a movement perhaps not against him personally, but certainly against his policies.
As a boy, I kept a picture of both President John F. Kennedy and Dr. King above my bedroom mirror. Now, as a "senior citizen," I have no images of President Obama anywhere in my home.
Peace to all on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.