Obama And The Black Community: Are We Closer To Realizing Dr. King’s Dream?
(MintPress) — Once every 24 years, a president is inaugurated on Dr. King’s Birthday. This logistical curiosity happens due to the fact that the federal government traditionally does not consider business on Sundays. As Inauguration Day (Jan. 20) fell on a Sunday this year, it was observed the following Monday, Dr. King’s Birthday (the third Monday in January).
In his second inaugural address, President Obama spoke of the need to be an united people — “What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
“That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing. That while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.”
In his address, Obama sought to invoke the dream of the slain civil rights leader and remind the audience of his commitment to Dr. King’s dream.
The beginning of a new era
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., PhD., was born Jan. 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Ga. A Baptist minister, he founded and served as the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in which he conducted nonviolent protests in Albany, Ga. and Birmingham, Ala. and brought national attention to the plight of Southern blacks for the first time when television cameras captured the brutality of the police against him and the other protesters.
He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his work in fighting racial inequality, led marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. in protest of the state’s effort to block access to the polls to blacks. An opponent of the Vietnam War and an outspoken critic of the nation’s policy in dealing with poverty and workers’ rights, he was assassinated April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tenn. He was in the city supporting the municipal strike, in with the city’s black garbage collectors were calling for pay at par with the White garbage collectors.
In the years following his death, his legacy was lionized in part due to the continuous campaigning of his widow, Coretta Scott King, and his children. In 1977, King was awarded posthumously with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to be followed in 2004 by the Congressional Gold Medal.
In 1986, Dr. King became only the fourth American (after George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson) to have their birthday a national holiday, and is only one of two (George Washington is the other) to have it celebrated currently. Almost every major city has a street named after him, the county that Seattle, Wash. is seated in was named in his honor, and the King Memorial was open in the National Mall in 2011.
He is best known, however, for his March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. One of the single largest political rallies in the nation’s history, and held at the Lincoln Memorial, the march was designed to call for economics and civil rights for African Americans.
A dream shared
Between 200,000 to 300,000 gathered to hear the “Big Six” speak — as the leaders of the civil rights movement were colloquially referred to by Malcolm X and others: James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young and Dr. King (Malcolm X referred to these leaders as “the Big Six” because he felt that — by cooperating with the federal government towards civil rights reform — they were betraying their people and were actually part of “the Big Fix”). Dr. King, a master speaker (his doctorate is in oration), gave the keynote and final address.
Dr. King’s speech was remembered as a masterpiece of rhetorics and is considered one of the finest speeches given by an American. Half of it was ad-libbed. Halfway through his prepared speech, the audience’s attention started to wane. Spurred on by internationally-renowned gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s call to “tell them about your dream, Martin,” Dr. King abandoned the rest of his speech and transitioned from speaking to preaching: “… Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.
“I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.
“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
“I have a dream today.
“I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
“I have a dream today.
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together … “
It was this dream that was directly cited by President Lyndon B. Johnson when he signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was this dream that convinced the Nobel Selection Committee to award Dr. King their highest honor (he was the youngest laureate at the time). It was this dream that every politician that wished to make inroads with the black or progressive communities cite.
It was the dream President Obama invoked multiple times throughout his candidacy and tenure as president.
In this dream is not simply the hope and wishes of a people, but the consideration of a nation beyond color lines. In Dr. King’s vision of America, race is as much of a consideration as eye or hair color. Dr. King saw the separation of people by means of skin color or ancestry as petty, an arbitrary demarcation to divide and to impose hate. By cloistering in self-defined boundaries, it permits an ignorant stance on what is beyond those boundaries, and in this, stereotypes, misconceptions, and misplaced self-righteousness can flourish. Dr. King felt that this nation could not heal from the hurt of the past unless it was willing to see all Americans as Americans on equal terms, and he felt that the change must start from the top — if the government discourages racism, it gives the racist fewer avenues to hide in.
A dream denied
The election of President Obama in 2008 was generally seen as the fulfillment of King’s dream. First attempted in 1984 by the Rev. Jesse Jackson (he was defeated in the primaries), the election of a black president was seen as lofty 20 years ago, and outright ludicrous 40 years ago. The election of Obama was seen as a symbolic turning-the-corner for America, a recognition that America is finally colorblind.
That turned out to be false. It turned out that America only learned to hide their racism.
Confronted with a black president, hidden hatred and bigotry came flooding out into the spotlight, both publicly and privately. A RT poll shows that in 2012, 51 percent of all Americans harbored explicitly anti-black and 56 percent held implicitly anti-black views, a rise from 48 and 49 percent, respectively, in 2008.
At Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi in Oxford, a mob of White students welcomed the president’s reelection with a volley of racial slurs and shocking disruptions. The president was barraged, not only in his candidacy, but also throughout his term, with questions ranging from the origin of his birth to his religion; these questions did not stop, even after the president produced multiple copies of his birth certificate. In contrast, John McCain (R-Ariz.) — who was actually born outside the United States in the Panama Canal Zone — was never asked to produce his birth certificate for the 2008 campaign.
Steven Hahn, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration,” in a 2012 op-ed for the New York Times, writes, “By the early 20th century the message was clear: black people did not belong in American political society and had no business wielding power over white people. This attitude has died hard. It is not, in fact, dead. Despite the achievements of the civil rights movement, African-Americans have seldom been elected to office from white-majority districts; only three, including Mr. Obama, have been elected to the United States Senate since Reconstruction, and they have been from either Illinois or Massachusetts.”
Hahn continues, “The truth is that in the post-Civil War South few whites ever voted for black office seekers, and the legacy of their refusal remains with us in a variety of forms. The depiction of Mr. Obama as a Kenyan, an Indonesian, an African tribal chief, a foreign Muslim — in other words, as a man fundamentally ineligible to be our president — is perhaps the most searing. Tellingly, it is a charge never brought against any of his predecessors.”
“But the coordinated efforts across the country to intimidate and suppress the votes of racial and ethnic minorities are far more consequential. Hostile officials regularly deploy the language of “fraud” and “corruption” to justify their efforts much as their counterparts at the end of the 19th century did to fully disenfranchise black voters.”
The election of president Obama is problematic because it lets the White community “off the hook.” In the election of a black man, the White community now have tangible proof that they are not racist and are not inheritors of their ancestors’ racist legacy.
Leslie Sacks, in a November 2012 article for The Patriot Post, writes, “Yes, white America thinks that they have indeed proven themselves prejudice free once and for all. They can now go on with their daily lives, living in cities where they are segregated and protected from the queasiness they would feel in allowing ‘black’ culture to be truly endorsed by a broader U.S. society. As it is now, ‘black’ culture has been largely relegated to the entertainment industry. Meanwhile, other job industries continue to expect workers to conform to ‘white’ sensibilities in order to get ahead. While it would be racist and downright silly to presume that Obama is purposely ‘acting white,’ it is reasonable to assume that many who vote for him would not show the same confidence and take him as seriously if he did not exude these overtly ‘white’ characteristics.”
While President Obama is significantly different from the Jesse Jacksons, Charles Rangels, Al Sharptons, and even Herman Cains of the worlds — which can collectively be termed “angry black men” — it’s in that difference that may lie the problem. Few in the African-American community feels that Obama has addressed issues of relevance to them — such as jobs, housing access and voting reforms.
Since he took office, the number of African-Americans in poverty rose. The percent of African-Americans in the workforce shrunk. The average net wealth of the African-American family shrunk. Entire African-American communities were wiped clear from the map due to aggressive targeting of the community for subprime loans by the banking industry. The unemployment rate for African-Americans is nearly twice the national average.
A dream saved
While motions — such as the Affordable Care Acts — are actions in the right direction, more is needed. Making a dream a reality takes bold strokes. Timidity cannot convince a person to reconsider their most deeply-held beliefs.
Dr. King had no illusions that his message will be disregarded by most that heard it. It was unlikely that policy would come from it. The Republicans were dead set against it, and the Southern Democrats were holding back the Democrats’ hands. But, Dr. King understood that change can grow from a single idea reaching the right person. In 1964, Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Southern Democrat from Texas, met with Dr. King and confirmed his commitment to push through the bill the late President Kennedy promised. Despite a filibuster from the southern Democrats, Johnson signed the bill into law July 2, 1964.
As he signed the bill, according to legend, he told an aide — “We have lost the South for a generation.” Nixon’s southern Strategy played into the frustrations of southern Whites, and Johnson’s prediction was right.
The Democrats have yet to retake the South.
But, the fulfillment of a dream requires great risk. In achieving the Civil Rights Act, people were arrested. They lost their jobs. They were hospitalized.
Dr. King, in his last sermon before his death, prophetically emphasizes the sacrifice he was willing to take: “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about a thing. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. “
Dr. King’s dream demands a grand sacrifice; the abandonment of comfort and ease toward standing against the unknown for what is right. Even if nothing was to come from the stance immediately, it will convince future leaders to take a stand of their own.
Dr. King’s dream can only be realized by the bold.
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