Will the Obama Generation Merge With the Protest Culture of MLK or Strike Its Own Path?
Somehow, a man with three names has been reduced to four words. Say Martin Luther King Jr., and the phrase "I Have a Dream" comes to mind -- as if that sums up his life or his relevance to the events swirling around Washington this week with the inauguration of Barack Obama, a man who many mistake as King's spiritual son.
As the nation marks King's birthday, and he is elevated to the pantheon of officially sanctioned heroes, many forget that he was a man who led a movement, who never sought office, and whose contribution was as a teacher of moral laws and an activist in righteous struggles. We mark his birthday only because so many fought for its recognition.
The movement that King led is, in fact, still alive and met -- as a shell of its former self -- in New York last week at a summit organized by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of King's disciples. There, the economy -- and how its collapse is impacting the people King gave his life for, like the striking sanitation workers of Memphis, Tenn. -- was center stage.
That movement is battling to redefine its program at a time when activists have moved from the streets to digital platforms, from face to face to Facebook, from tumult to Twitter, from agitation in the streets to deal making in the suites.
Jackson, of course knows about this divide and tried to cross it boldly in 1984 and 1988 in two historic residential campaigns that shook up the Democratic Party. He won primaries and the party rule changes that permitted the proportional allocation of primary votes that gave Obama a string of victories.
Just as Obama reached into organizer Cesar Chavez's tool kit for the phrase "Si Se Puede! (Yes We Can!)," Jackson's living legacy is a largely unacknowledged building block in the chain of history that has taken us to this point. His tears at the victory rally in Chicago were connected to a history that our media often buries.
I spoke to Jackson for a film I am making with Videovision's Anant Singh about the Obama campaign. I asked him about what was going through his mind on that joyous night in Grant Park, where, back in 1968, many heads were broken by the police.
"Really, it was two things," he told me. "It was the draw of the moment. In my mind's eye, I saw martyrs whose caskets I walked behind and friends with whom I worked, who are somewhere in poverty or dead. Children in villages of Kenya, Haiti, who could not afford a television, or somewhere around some radio, hoping that there'd be this great redemptive, transformative breakthrough.
"So it was the draw of that moment, and most of the people I knew who live down in Alabama or Mississippi who made this moment happen couldn't afford to be there. And I felt them. And it was also a journey, the journey to get us there."
Memories flooded in and he spoke with almost a stream of consciousness:
"I was jailed trying to use a public library, along with seven of my classmates. … We couldn't take a picture in the state capitol, but dogs could. … Many of us killed for the right to vote. … James Meredith shot. … Two Jews were killed because they were seen as meddling in Mississippi politics. … Rev. James Reeve, Jimmy Lee Jackson, these people, these mostly nameless, faceless martyrs, they made the big part of it possible. And often, those who make the big part possible are not invited to the party. They can't afford to come to the party.
"And I wept again for them, because I wanted them to be there, and I thought that if Doctor came, Chavez maybe just be there for a moment in time, and I just kept thinking about Martin Luther King, just like … if they were just there for a moment in time, my whole life would have been fulfilled. So I was thinking about the joy and the journey. That kind of took me to a level of ecstasy and joy."
This was not a history referenced by most commentators covering the Obama campaign.
There is a complicated tension between civil rights leaders and President-elect Obama. Their difference is more about how change can made -- will it all come from the inside through an inherently conservative, compromised and bureaucratic political process, or does there need to be pressure from the outside at the grassroots, or "street heat" as one of the reverend's supporters put it?
Is the movement model fashioned by King and civil rights organization calling for activism still needed, or is it passé? Is there still a need and role for the Rev. Jacksons?
With Obama mounting a charm offensive to neutralize enemies and seduce opponents on the right, it seems that he is running away from progressive supporters. After he met with hard-right commentators last week, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, the first publication to endorse Jackson years back, asked why progressive supporters were being ignored.
Obama came out of the Saul Alinsky tradition of community organizing. While Alinsky's most famous book was called Reveille For Radicals, by the time I met and worked with him in a real organizing school in 1965, he had become a reformer and pragmatist, quiet on the Vietnam War, solicitous of liberal Democrats and hostile to student movements.
Jesse Jackson remains an organizer in the big-tent movement tradition. He was preaching Rainbow Coalition for decades before Obama made the idea jell politically.
PUSH, an acronym for People United to Save Humanity, is firmly pro-peace and economic justice and was founded by Jackson. Obama has so far been eloquent at tapping movement rhetoric, but he seems distant, even dismissive, of movement culture. Many of his most devoted backers want to know if he is married to promoting change or just shucking and jiving. Will he remain an advocate for transforming the system or become a prisoner of power? Will he turn his back on King's commitment to nonviolence, or has he already?
Can the Obama generation and the King-Jackson culture -- one with an outside-in strategy, the other inside-out -- merge, or are they inherently in conflict? Will Obama give his predecessors the props they deserve? Can the fight for change that Jackson and Obama embrace work on many levels? If Obama can reconcile with Republicans, why not with the long marchers of the Rainbow?
These are questions that will soon be tested in a new administration that starts this week.