Is Martin Luther King Jr. Smiling Down on President Obama's Second Inauguration?
The coincidence of timing between President Obama's second inauguration, 50 years having passed since the March on Washington, Dr. King's Holiday, and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation is like a type of political catnip or intoxicant that the pundit classes--and those others interested in American history, culture, and life--cannot resist.
Such an alignment of dates could portend something "magical" and inspirational for the President's second term. Alternatively, perhaps Obama's second inauguration, and the alignment of dates which could suggest a radical breaking from standing history and the shadow of the colorline, is simply an easy lede for a story written under deadline.
Whatever the motivation or source, many folks, like those standing outside at the National Mall on Monday, talking in barbershops and hair salons, writing online, or whose editorials will appear on TV, radio, or in traditional print media, are likely asking "what would Martin Luther King Jr. think of President Obama's second inauguration?"
We can try to divine the wishes and thoughts of the departed. Some folks will pretend that they are clairvoyants, at a seance, and can actually hear Brother Dr. King's words and wishes in an act of paranormal and fantastical interpretation.
I am not able to channel the late Dr. King's wisdom about events that occurred more than four decades after his murder. However, we can look to some of his actual wisdom, cautionary words, and insights into the country which he died to improve and protect.
On poverty and war Dr. King famously said:
"(I)n the ghettoes of the North over the last three years -- especially the last three summers, (a)s 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 ask -- and rightly so -- 'what about Vietnam?' They ask 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 those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent."
Dr. King also astutely connected the price of the military industrial complex and American imperialism abroad to a broken infrastructure at home:
"There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam 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 Vietnam, and I watched this 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 like Vietnam 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."
Or race, inequality, and reparations Dr. King observed:
But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men - yes, black men as well as white men - would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.
No one could offer those truth-telling statements and be elected President. This is especially true given the status of Black Americans as contingent citizens whose inalienable rights are forever suspect: no Black American with serious desires to be President (or any other high office), could ever utter such words, or give comfort to similar thoughts in public (or even in private) and be successful.
President Obama is just a man. He is not a black superhero. President Obama is a President who happens to be black. He is not a Black President. President Obama is not the living embodiment of Dr. King or Brother Malcolm.
He is not our shining black manhood as deftly spoken to by Ossie Davis during his funereal oratory for Malcolm X.
Some of you knew this. Others had to be told of its truth.
Barack Obama has demonstrated the veracity of a fundamental belief held by those who study the American Presidency: he is bounded by precedent and the decisions made by those who came before him; Obama will leverage those said happenings to the degree possible in order to advance his agenda; he will not concede power or the expanded understanding of what the office allows he or she who is President to do. And yes, that includes the unitary executive, the imperial presidency, drone strikes, and kill lists.
As he is sworn in a second time, President Obama is a paradox of sorts. He is a President who happens to be black who was reelected because of the overwhelming support of black and brown voters. The (twice) arrival of Barack Obama also heralds the end of Black Politics.
I am unsure if the the ways in which President Barack Obama navigates the political realities of post civil rights era America, with its insincere colorblindness, in the face of vicious and racist opposition by conservatives, is evidence of his genius (or not). As a supporter of Barack Obama, I lean towards the affirmative. Obama is playing a game that is not designed for a man who looks like him; somehow he plays it pretty damn well...whatever you/we/us think of the policy outcomes.
I have no doubt however, that Obama is very mindful of his legacy as the country's first black president, feels deeply beholden to the ancestors and the Black Freedom Struggle, and how the first draft of history will judge his tenure.
Realpolitik can be cruel in its honest truths. With few exceptions, outsiders and visionaries do not become President of the United States of America. The United States is an empire. Men like Martin Luther King Jr., leaders who are killed because they speak truth to Power, are not elected President of the United States of America.
Consequently, it is high time that folks stop using Brother King as a measuring stick for Barack Obama. They were playing very different games; therefore they should be held to very different standards of leadership. There is only one Brother Doctor King. There is only one Barack Obama. They are very different from one another. Both are first ballot hall of fame entries into The Pantheon of Black Exceptionalism and Greatness: deny that fact at your own peril. It is a far better use of one's energies to meditate on the consequences of Obama's elevation to a leading figure in the Black Freedom Struggle, than to deny if said conclusion will come to pass.
I am not suggesting moral cowardice or retreat by Obama's critics, and Progressives, especially. Rather, I would hope that President Barack Obama is judged by the standards of the office, pushed forward by his base to be like Johnson or FDR--or at the very least made to be more accountable to the people and the Common Good, than to the public opinion polls, the financiers, banksters, and his chances of reelection.
Obama is and has never been a "runaway slave." That temperament is not his way. However, President Obama is adept at playing 3 dimensional Star Trek chess. By leveraging this talent he can win a few victories for regular folks on both sides of the colorline. Incrementalism can be a virtue.
Would Dr. King approve? I am unsure. You tell me.