Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama, and the Fate of America


January 23, 2008 at 12:14 pm

As we celebrate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on a national holiday dedicated to his honor, many people point to the surging presidential candidacy of Barack Obama as evidence of how far this country has come in terms of race relations since the days of the Civil Rights struggle led by Dr. King. Many see Obama’s campaign as the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream. As they would point out, here is a man who is being judged based on the content of his character, and not on the color of his skin. Could anything be more representative of the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream than that?

While it is certainly heartening to see such a strong candidacy from an African American, Obama’s run for the presidency sheds light on the nuances of race relations in this land in interesting ways. It also sheds light on the way Dr. King’s legacy has been shaped in a way to make many of the forces that were extremely uncomfortable with him at the end of his life, “accept” him in his death. Those are the same forces, to a large extent, that are willing to “accept” Obama, as long as he stays away from the sort of issues that probably cost Dr. King his life.

At the end of his life, Dr. King was anathema to those interests and individuals who collectively form the ruling coalition in this country. His strident opposition to the Viet Nam War, his fearless advocacy for the poor, for the unrepresented and the underserved of this country, and his increasingly bitter condemnation of both the apathy of the middle class, along with what he saw as the hypocrisy of the Christian establishment all earned him the ire and the vehement condemnation of powerful whites, along with a significant number of African American leaders who felt he was going beyond the demands of the Civil Rights movement.

Despite the impression given by the popular celebrations associated with his holiday, Dr. King’s legacy was not captured by his famous “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963. In that speech King appealed to the moral consciousness of America, expressing his hope for an equal and equitable society, which he viewed as achievable at that time. However, confronted with the depth of the oppressive segregation of Northern ghettos, the nagging intransigence of the poverty confronting both blacks and whites in the rural south, and the blatant hypocrisies of the political establishment, highlighted by the war in Viet Nam, King began to articulate a different message. That message was captured in his damning indictment of American militarism, corporate greed, and stultifying oppression, articulated in his definitive statement of opposition to the war in Viet Nam, “Viet Nam: A Time Comes When Silence is Betrayal,” a speech he delivered April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his death.

The following lengthy excerpt from that speech demonstrates how Dr. King had grown in his thinking to link the oppressive nature of American policies abroad with the brutal realities facing the poor at home. He said:

There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Viet Nam and the struggle I, and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor ̶ both black and white ̶ through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Viet Nam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures such as Viet Nam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia or East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such a cruel manipulation of the poor.

My third reason [for opposing the war] moves to a deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the past three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked me, and rightfully so, what about Viet Nam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today ̶ my own government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent…

Dr. King went on to say:

Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken ̶ the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin to shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered…

In the aftermath of that speech Dr. King was condemned by many African American leaders such as Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who saw himself as a great friend of the “Negro” people was irate. The growing schism between Dr. King and the power structure had been cemented. However, King proceeded to deepen his analysis, which illustrated how oppressive American policies abroad were inextricably linked with unacceptable social and political conditions at home.

Herein lays Dr. King’s legacy, an uncompromising struggle against the “giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism.” That aspect of his work and teachings is unmentioned in the mainstream media. Instead his baritone refraining of “I have a dream” fills the airwaves. After his death, the struggle against those evil “triplets” was not allowed to exist as his enduring legacy. Instead, that legacy has been whitewashed, sanitized and rendered “acceptable” for middle class sensitivities.

What does all of this have to do with Obama? Obama is a viable African American candidate because he has steadfastly refused to deal with the issues Dr. King was dealing with at the end of his life, even though they are just as relevant today as they were forty years ago. That refusal has seen him distance himself from his activist pastor, Minister Jeremiah Wright. It has seen him avoid any public identification with Rev. Jesse Jackson, a fellow Chicagoan, or similar leaders who are identified with African American civil rights advocacy, and it has seen him ignore issues of relevance to African Americans and the urban and rural poor today.

Saying that is not to argue that Obama should be another Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. Although he consciously choose to identify with the African American urban community during his years of activism in Chicago’s south-side ghetto, his immigrant father, his white mother, and the fact that he was raised in part by his white grandparents have created powerful realities in his life that have prepared him to have an intrinsic appeal to a far wider audience. Hence, Obama is naturally more than just a “black” leader. However, the fact that he cannot, amongst his other positions, continue to even mildly advocate for an African American community that is in deep crisis reveals much about the nature of our politics and society.

This is not meant to be an indictment against Obama. It is an indictment against an American society which has deemed that an open advocate for such issues is unfit to lead this nation. If advocating ending the policies that are working to send hundreds of thousands of mostly young African Americans to prisons, a large percentage of them nonviolent offenders; if working to advance critical policies such as serious gun-control legislation, legislation that would challenge the powerful National Rifle Association, while black youth are mercilessly gunning each other down in the streets of our inner-city neighborhoods (and white youth are gunning down people in our high schools and college campuses); if working to effect a fair and just solution to the problem of meaningful Palestinian statehood; if seeking to take effective measures to begin serious structural changes in the international division of resources, profits, and labor; if challenging the sanity and the long-term economic destructiveness of defense budgets that exceed 500 billion dollars annually are all issues that cannot be realistically approached because they would render a candidate unelectable, then it is not time to hail the coming of an acceptable African American presidential candidate, it is time to take a long and hard look at the nature and functioning of our political system.

As long as we politely skirt the fundamental problems plaguing our country, starting with the superficiality of our race relations, Obama’s candidacy and possible election do not represent any real change, they represent a re-entrenched status quo, and illustrate the sort of duplicity that would hound Dr. King as a traitor and communist at the end of his life yet enshrine him as a martyr after his death.

These issues have deep consequences for the fate of this nation. If real change is to begin in this country it has to begin now and it has to begin with a deep and honest effort to understand the dangerous implications of maintaining the status quo. To conclude in the words of Dr. King, once again from the defining words of his anti-Viet Nam war speech:

A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, on injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. …

The election of an African American, or a woman for that matter, without an associated “revolution of values” will do no more than possibly delay, but will not stave off, this country’s inevitable spiritual demise.