Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day in the United States, the day we’ve set aside from everything to honor a man who did more, at least in our modern understanding, than any other single person to promote the Civil Rights movement and efforts toward racial equality in this country. He was also bestowed a day, presumably, because he advocated and used non-violent means, one of the few times in history those means have been tested (to great effect) and, it must be said, because he was assassinated. Those felled before fulfilling their full potential are always deserving of greater honor, given that only time would have told what the full range of their impact would have been. For example, I have little doubt that a life-long MLK would have been our first Black President. Instead, that honor has gone to Barack Obama.
Yesterday was also the unofficial but very much observed Inauguration Day in our country, the day we’ve set aside to reappoint President Obama to his position for another four years. The opportunity to reinaugurate the first Black President on MLK Day was simply not to be overlooked, and thus the formalities were done Sunday, while the spectacle of Americans celebrating their peaceful transfer of power from one man to himself was observed yesterday. It is not a popular time to note how badly President Obama has deserted, failed, and possibly even betrayed the legacy of Dr. King. But I don’t see anyone else saying it, so it’s time to step up.
Or, perhaps, to quote MLK himself, quoting the statements of the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam in his seminal 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam”, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”
It is precisely this Martin Luther King, the MLK of his last years, that I feel Obama has disappointed so badly. Yes, much has been written on how Obama is terrified of making waves or standing out for any sort of issue of racial equality or anything that could come near being perceived as a racial issue. He has taken no actions to limit the drug war which disproportionately punishes minorities for non-violent offenses. He has done nothing to discuss the cradle-to-prison pipeline spun by the prison-industrial complex, the mass-incarceration of generations of young minorities who were unable to carve the opportunities he did, very much against the odds. He has acted in all ways as someone entirely blind to any possible plight of racial minorities whatsoever, presumably for fear of preventing future people who look like him from being elected since they would seem to only care about such issues. All of this is well documented, and all of this alone is enough to excoriate Obama’s record on the issues MLK is known for.
But the direction MLK was taking his legacy in his final years of life was far different. Or rather, it was in the same swell as the initial movement, but far broader in scope and perspective. While he was surely under no illusions that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 fixed the problems the movement sought to redress, MLK had shifted his attentions away from race, where he had made much progress, to equally large and even less surmountable issues of institutional violence and poverty in 1967 and 1968. He took a position of prominence, power, following, and especially acknowledgment from national power-brokers, and he risked it all on pushing for further lasting gains that would truly change society for all Americans. And they shot him for it.
Lyndon Johnson and other figures in government felt deeply betrayed by Dr. King that he would take their partnership on Civil Rights issues and then turn around and condemn their failure to act justly regarding the War, to act meaningfully to reduce poverty in a society that, by today’s standards, looks egalitarian and upwardly mobile. They were fundamentally political animals, dealing in the world of quid pro quo and horse-trading where Obama has been able to excel (or at least get by). But MLK was not, essentially, a political person. He was a populist, a man of rhetoric and the pulpit, a person whose vision transcended what we would today be told was practical or sufficiently incremental. Even at the time, most of his colleagues decried his shift away from the areas where he had found success to issues he found to be more profoundly important at the time. Why move away from race when progress is being made there, why say that all races are suffering under the draft, under the iron grip of despair that comes with being poor? And MLK’s only answer could be that these were the most pressing issues of the time, the place where the most progress was needed. Even from a purely racial lens, the biggest threats to minorities, as well as the whole country, were war and poverty.
So he spoke out against the war. He drafted an Economic Bill of Rights and launched the Poor People’s Campaigns with one of the original plans to occupy a major US city. He planned to display that the opportunity cost of war was the people of the society who bore its burdens. He said:
“We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way…and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.'”
It still happened, for six weeks, after MLK was assassinated, and was broken up by tear gas and riot police after violence was blamed on those in the shantytown in DC. Without the fiery leader to convince people to stay on the straight and narrow path of non-violence, without the hope of a figure, a true leader, who commanded the respect of the authorities, the movement was unable to thrive. The war raged on for years and poverty only worsened, pretty much every year, until 2013.
Martin Luther King gave his life for his commitment to non-violence and ending poverty. These were core issues for the man. What has Barack Obama done about these things? The man who dares to invoke King’s legacy – in what ways has he taken risks for these causes?
Yes, I know there are those of you out there who will credit Obama for “ending” the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Never mind his outspoken defense of the latter war, his perpetuation and escalation of it, and his continued advocacy of a military budget that dwarfs that of the next seven most belligerent countries combined. Nor, of course, his intervention in Libya, his willingness to assassinate Pakistanis and Yemenis daily without warrant, notice, publicity, or a chance of them defending themselves. It’s hard to picture a President King taking any of these actions, of course, or failing to call them out on a daily basis, regardless of the race of the President in power.
But even the most brazen defender of Obama would not be able to offer me a single action he’s done to aid the plight of the poor. While bailouts and endless lines of interest-free money have streamed toward big banking and big business, the poor have had to be content with ongoing unemployment benefits and the theory of health insurance where their biggest benefit is not having to pay a fine but still not getting health insurance. The truly poor rarely vote, rarely make their voice heard, are so often incarcerated and disenfranchised that they cannot afford to be advocates for themselves, let alone the power-brokers who make and break Presidencies. Where is the right to a job, the rights enumerated in the Economic Bill of Rights that became a national joke as soon as Dr. King was in the ground? Where is the advocate for the worker, the would-be worker, the poorest of the poor, who is not immediately laughed off as an impractical dreamer? Where are the people who, on the day named for him, will truly give their due to Martin Luther King?
Not in the land of the free and the home of the brave. You won’t find them here.
And for what, President Obama? What are you running for (or from)? Whose favor are you trying to curry now? You’ve been re-elected, you’ll never run for anything again. Maybe, just maybe, you can meditate on the legacy of your forbear, you can consider why you are even able to sit in that Oval Office in the first place, and start to pay down some of your enormous debts. Maybe you can consider the plight of those who were less lucky than you, as Dr. King did before you. And maybe, just maybe, we can have the first term of a Presidency in decades that is not entirely beholden to corporate interests and increasing the power of the wealthy elites.
They might shoot you for it. But Dr. King knew there were more important things than living through the misery that other people would subject you to. And Aaron Swartz has reminded us that sometimes dying for a cause can be just as powerful, if not more so, than living for it. Have some courage to stand up for something that might actually sound like the change you promised us five years ago. Or at least the bravery to be willing to change yourself.