Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr.
January 18, 2010
All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem. -- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for the presidency on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic "I have a dream" speech. He was inaugurated the day after our national holiday celebrating the life and accomplishments of Dr. King. Many asked if Obama's presidency was the realization of King's dream. Cultural products, from t-shirts to YouTube videos, linked Obama's election to King's legacy.
Some observers have made far less complimentary comparisons between the men. Some self-professed keepers of King's legacy have insisted that Barack Obama is embarrassingly anemic on issues of race. Remembering King as an uncompromising paragon of progressive politics, these "black leaders" judge Obama as a wishy-washy sell-out, unwilling to stand firm for his constituency.
This sentiment was perfectly captured last week in the outrageous comments of African American Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson. Lost in the din surrounding Harry Reid's "Negro dialect" comments and Rush Limbaugh's scandalous tirade about Haiti, was Dyson's assertion that "Barack Obama runs from race like a black man runs from a cop."
Dyson's comment is both offensive -- to President Obama and to black men in general -- and false: No other American presidential candidate paused in the middle of a campaign to deliver an exquisite commentary on race. Still, Dyson's sentiment is indicative of a small, but vocal group of black public intellectuals who have regularly criticized Obama during his campaign and his presidency.
Often comparing Obama explicitly to Dr. King, they conclude the President lacks the moral courage or Leftist determination of the civil rights icon.
I disagree. Barack Obama is stunningly similar to Martin Luther King, Jr., but to see this similarity we must relinquish the false, reconstructed memories of perfection we currently project onto King.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a political philosopher and dedicated freedom fighter, but he was also a pragmatic political strategist. Seen through the perfecting lens of martyrdom, King appears to be to be an uncompromising progressive leader, undeterred by seemingly insurmountable challenges, willing to risk all to achieve the goals of his movement.
To see King exclusively in these terms requires active, willful revision of history. In his political work, King was surprisingly like President Obama. And I don't mean the oratory.
Consider this: Martin Luther King Jr. turned his back on Bayard Rustin. Rustin was his dear friend and trusted advisor. Rustin was the architect of the March on Washington. A fierce, lifelong pacifist, Rustin shepherded a young King through his first non-violent, direct action protests. Without Rustin there would have been no March on Washington and no national audience for the articulation of King's great dream.
Yet when he was pressed, Martin Luther King Jr. eventually disavowed Rustin and ejected him from the movement. Rustin asked King for his support, but King turned his back on Rustin. King rejected Rustin because Rustin was gay and socialist.
Faced with the political realities of homophobia and America's red scare, King chose to silence Rustin. King decided defending Rustin would distract the movement from its central goal of achieving an end to racial segregation.
Consider this: Martin Luther King, Jr. undercut the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party.
Black, rural laborers in Mississippi endured brutal beatings, death threats, loss of property, and exile from their homes because they wanted to vote. Despite these dangers, they formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Under the leadership of Fannie Lou Hamer they brought a delegation to the Democratic National Convention in 1964. There they demanded to be recognized and seated in protest of the racial disfranchisement in their state. Hamer's testimony before the DNC credentials committee remains a powerful witness to the brutal conditions black Americans faced in their struggle for first class citizenship.
It was Martin Luther King, Jr. who brokered a deal with the Democratic leadership that cut Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democrats out of the Mississippi delegation. King knew that Johnson still needed the Southern segregationists to hold the majority. King needed Johnson to pass civil rights legislation. Johnson needed the Southerners to get elected. So King undercut Hamer. It was a strategic calculation.
Consider this: Martin Luther King, Jr. worked closely with many African American women, but staunchly refused to address gender equality as part of the larger movement for civil rights.
Women like Ella Baker, Diane Nash, Daisy Bates and Fannie Lou Hamer are dimly remembered compared to the shining beacon of King's legacy. This invisibility of women activists is neither accidental nor inevitable. Despite his sweeping, visionary, social theorizing, King had surprisingly little imagination about how the extraordinary women in the movement could share leadership and accolades with the male leaders. He often relegated his women peers to supporting roles and backstage efforts. King refused to publicly address gender discrimination and often argued that women's issues were distracting to the work of civil rights.
Deriding King and his legacy is not my goal in retelling these stories. We must remember that Martin Luther King was no earthbound deity, fearlessly pursuing an uncompromising agenda; he was a strategic political leader. He was a realist whose choices were often upsetting and unpalatable to those on his left.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s charismatic, audacious, courageous leadership dramatically altered the trajectory of American history. His leadership lasted just over a decade. In that decade he helped bring to fruition more than a century of struggle first inaugurated when black persons became free people in the United States. No personal or political shortcoming can erase or even tarnish King's contributions.
Remembering King's own strategic choices is not an apologia for President Obama. Barack Obama's legacy will ultimately rise and fall on the strength of his own accomplishments, not primarily on his comparative skill relative to other leaders. But a more clear-eyed assessment of King should make us more careful about how we judge our own imperfect President as he navigates his own complicated historical moment.
Barack Obama is not the leader of a progressive social movement; he is the president. As president he is both more powerful than Dr. King and more structurally constrained. He has more institutional power at his disposal and more crosscutting constituencies demanding his attention. He has more powerful allies and more powerful opponents.
We remember King as the beloved and revered leader of a nation-changing movement. We forget that King was widely criticized during his life. The American media derided this Nobel Peace Prize recipient for speaking out against the Vietnam War. Many argued King had overreached and had little right to weigh in on international matters. Despite braving vicious attacks, unfair incarceration, and attempts on his life, many young leaders mocked King for being insufficiently radical, overly tied to existing institutions, and inadequately brave in the face of racial attacks. One of the most gifted speakers of any age, in the final months of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. had trouble filling an auditorium for a public address.
I have criticisms of President Obama. He has not sufficiently championed the basic civil rights of LGBT Americans. He has escalated rather than ended our country's war effort. His health care initiative is not going to include a public option. But I am grateful that extraordinary change can be achieved even through imperfect leadership.
I see King in Obama: a leader who is imperfectly, but wholeheartedly groping toward better and fairer solutions for our nation.