January 17, 2013
LAWT Contributing Writer
The inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama for his second term in office will be held in Washington, DC, on Monday, January 21. The date also marks the federally recognized holiday of the birth of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The significance of these two events has been widely noted. Many comparisons have been made with Dr. King throughout Obama’s first term, and countless memorabilia items have been created that cement the comparison.
Some of what Obama shares with Dr. King are his charisma and handsomeness, a beautiful and intelligent wife who can hold her own and beautiful children.
Both men come from strong culturally-intact backgrounds – Dr. King was raised in the loving bosom of an African American and Baptist family and community during the era of segregation; President Obama’s upbringing was multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and international in scope.
Both men were intellectuals, with Dr. King receiving the Doctor of Philosophy degree from Boston University in Massachusetts, while President Obama taught Constitutional Law after receiving his law degree from Harvard University.
Both men have written books and were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. And both men have been staunch supporters of the state of Israel.
Various memorabilia that cement the comparisons of the two men also imply that the Obama Presidency is a fulfillment of Dr. King’s legacy. But is it?
“It is absolutely,” said Dr. David Horne, professor of Pan African Studies and Public Policy at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). “Part of what Dr. King hoped for was an America that could judge its worthwhile citizens by the ‘content of their character, more than the color of their skin.’ President Obama is a living testament to that,” said Horne.
“Dr. King also said we have to struggle for more than a seat at the table, or a place in the dining hall,” Horne continued. “We had to struggle to achieve real political influence and leverage within the American system and the ability to help shape the world towards a better place. We had to be the bearers of political morality and integrity, and we should strive for leadership in that regard. Again, President Obama is all that. This is not to say that were he alive, Dr. King would have agreed with every decision President Obama has made – the issue of Libya and drones both come to mind quickly – but, understanding the meticulousness with which he makes tough decisions, the manner in which he has conducted himself as husband, father and as president of the United States, and the very character of the man as president, Dr. King would have been a relentless ally and an indefatigable defender and supporter of this president. Is President Obama, a Black man who is president, within the legacy left by Dr. King? Without any doubt.”
Damien Goodmon, executive director of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, thinks differently. “I do take issue with people thinking that solely through his election, Barack Obama is the fulfillment of Dr. Kings dream,” said Goodmon. As the recipient of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference –Los Angeles’s 2013 Drum Major for Justice Award, Goodmon stated, “As a Black man sits in the White House, Black inequality on several levels – income, mass incarceration, health – remains, and I don’t think the cause of Dr. King was solely to get Black faces in high places, but to improve the conditions of all people, prominently Black people.”
It is hard to deny the symbolism of Obama in relation to Dr. King’s Legacy, specifically his “dream” as shared on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in August, 1963. According to Dr. Karin L. Stanford, political scientist and chair of CSUN’s Pan Afrikan Studies Department, “Symbolism is always important for role modeling, mentoring and demonstrating the possibilities of what one can accomplish, especially for Black children if they live in impoverished neighborhoods, and for adults when you consider the assaults on Black personhood that we see constantly in the mass media.”
“Based on that,” said Dr. Stanford, “the symbolism of a Black person who has the standing of a president is extremely important.”
Very few have downplayed the importance of the symbolism of Obama’s first term but many have been critical of how that first term has impacted African Americans.
In other words, where is the substance to go with the symbolism?
“The president’s educational policies have been very progressive – more funding for Pell grants, student loans, and he has provided a lot of support for community colleges which is a first-stop for many, many students of color before they enroll in four-year educational institutions, said Prof. Stanford, adding that, “He has also provided relief to the unemployed by extending the limits of the federal unemployment insurance program.”
Stanford believes that at least some of the blame for a lack of substance can be found outside of the White House.
“President Obama is part of a political system; the president has limited power,” said Stanford. “And part of our problem is that many Black organizations took the position, argued that we should not criticize him publicly, so we have been silent. It is the job of Black organizations to advocate for what we want as a body of Black people. Now that he has been re-elected, we must advocate for our policies aggressively.”
“The role of a president and the role of a person who pushes a president are different, and we should have different expectations for them both,” said Goodmon. “President Barack Obama will never be Dr. Martin Luther King, and there will probably never be another leader as great as Dr. Martin Luther King.”
Although there should be differing expectations, one cannot help but notice the similarities.
Just as glaring however, are the differences.
First and foremost, Dr. King maintained an inner circle of men who looked like him and shared many of his same experiences: Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, James Orange, Bayard Rustin, Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael) and others.
Relying on these men (and some women like Ella Jo Baker) and others he met while engaged in the struggle for Black civil rights helped to move Dr. King to a position where he began to criticize both the economic and foreign policies of the United States. As president of the U.S., Barack Obama has sworn to uphold those policies.
Dr. King told us that we must begin to examine “an edifice that produces beggars” and that it “must be restructured.” Thus far, President Obama’s policies have given succor to banks and other Wall Street corporations, and the “Grand Bargain” he is attempting to reach with the Republican Party threatens to gut Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare which, according to the online newsite Black Agenda Report dot com, “80 percent of Americans, and virtually the totality of the Black American polity, reject.”
While Dr. King told us that militarism was an evil that must be looked at for what it is, President Obama has permanently placed American military troops – approximately 3000 so far – on the continent of Africa through AFRICOM (Africa Command); conducted a ground/air war in Libya which led to the murder of that country’s leader; and continues to maim and murder children, women and men in Pakistan and Yemen through the use of Predator Drones (unmanned aerial vehicles).
“Obama’s Presidency raises a lot of contradictions for us,” says Kwazi Nkrumah, coordinator for the Martin Luther King Coalition for Jobs, Justice and Peace, founded in Los Angeles in 2009.
“On the one hand, there’re Black folks being included in the system and making progress through inclusion. In one sense, that’s what the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King’s work was raising. What Obama’s presidency has raised, in a very practical way, is that our inclusion in the system, as it is, does not necessarily represent progress for us. But in Dr. King’s last years, he was clearly questioning the system itself; what he was raising is that this system, as it is, is not ultimately where we want to go, as Black people, other people of color, poor whites.”
As we approach the inauguration of President Obama’s final term in office, it seems almost fitting, then, that we ask the question that Dr. King asked in the title of one of his books: where do we go from here?
“He didn’t really feel that this system was the end-all-be-all of our freedom,” remarks Nkrumah of Dr. King. “This economic system, the international relations that grow from it, and the politics based on it, have to be restructured,” Nkrumah said.