I’m going to piggy-back off of Jill’s post to give a quick personal reflection of Dr. Martin Luther King and some of the similarities I see in Obama today. I stress the word “similarities” because I would not argue that Barack Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr. are the same. However, there are a few things that have struck me as I’ve watched this historic moment unfold.
The strongest and most obvious similarity between the two is that they both share a strong belief in coalition politics. In that respect, history will likely show that both men were praised for their inclusiveness at the same time they faced charges of naivety from their more “revolutionary” critics. For as both Obama and King share the power of a broader perspective, they also bear the burden of promising delayed gratification at a time when some might not see the benefit of an extended olive branch or turned cheek. Malcolm X, vehemently disagreed with King’s non-violent approach and once stated,
“The only revolution in which the goal is loving your enemy is the Negro revolution,” he announced. “Revolution is bloody, revolution is hostile, revolution knows no compromise, revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in the way.” (Stanford University’s King Encyclopedia)
Both King and Malcolm X represented two valid themes of political engagement within the black community at that time. Some prefered confrontation while others prefered persuasion. Both King and Malcolm X are historical giants and I often joke that we, as black folk, have a little bit of King and Malcolm in each of us. The sin, however, lies on our part when we refuse to see how both of these strategies worked to compliment each other for the betterment of black people. Indeed, there is reason to believe that both of their messages played off of each other to strengthen the black community’s political leverage.
All signs indicate that Obama chose the MLK route a long time ago. And though some of his critics might harp on why Obama didn’t run a more traditionally “black” campaign, I would offer this one bit of information for consideration . . .
History shows that there’s a reason why black leaders called their efforts the “Civil Rights Movement” and not the “Black Rights Movement.” It was a deliberate strategic effort to:
1. Take advantage of the changing times (coming on the heels of two World Wars, an economic depression, growing tensions with Russia, and ideological battles between communism and capitalism); and
2. To strengthen the political base by expanding the cause from one of race to one of humanity/equality.
This is not necessarily a matter of running away from one’s “blackness” or kissing up to white folk. For many it’s simply a matter of staying three moves ahead in the political game of chess that is racial politics. For others, it’s a matter of getting people to believe in something that’s not only bigger than themselves, but also bigger than the struggles they face or the resentment they hold. This helps explain the heavy influence of the black church in civil rights protest.
It was King, himself, who, while discussing the Montgomery Bus Boycott, once said:
“If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, ‘There lived a great people – a black people – who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.’” – Lawson, Steven F. , Running for Freedom (1997), 64, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
(more after the jump)
Various authors have discussed this strategic aspect of the Civil Rights Movement (for a thought-provoking perspective, see Norman Kelley’s, The Head Negro in Charge Syndrome). It’s a powerful strategy that, at times, unfortunately gets mistaken for “accommodation” by it’s critics.
Beyond the “Mickey-Mousification” of MLK’s “dream” (was that Cornel West or Michael Eirc Dyson who created that phrase?), there’s a reason why many people, including myself, still see Martin Luther King, Jr. as THE BEST, most influential civil rights pioneer of all time. . . he had a plan and got results. He saw the bigger picture.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man who could say some of the most controversial things (given the times in which he lived), yet still get millions of people to buy into his message. To a certain extent, his efforts and sacrifices (along with many of that generation) would later bring the mere concept of black equality into the mainstream of American consciousness (though we still have a long ways to go as far as acting on said consciousness — I believe that the next stage should be one of self-empowerment). What King did was certainly not an easy thing to accomplish. Our collective memory of him often fails to fully appreciate what he and others of his era actually did.
I definitely saw some of King’s influence in the way Obama decided to run his campaign. Like King, Obama had a clear plan (grassroots) and has seen some results. However, the question remains as to just how Obama will use his brand of coalition politics to help those in need. Like King, Obama has taken advantage of the changing times to introduce certain concepts into the mainstream that would have been unacceptable just a few years ago under Bush (serious deficit spending/investment, first-person negotiations with hostile nations, an investment in infrastructure, closing Gitmo). Though some may harp on his alleged “centrist” or rightward leanings, I think Obama doesn’t get enough credit for the manner in which he is preparing the collective psyche of this country for a paradigmatic shift.
IF we are going to solve the problems of our times, we’ll have to do it together. And though that doesn’t require checking one’s suspicions at the door, it does invite us to always be mindful of a bigger picture. Martin Luther King saw the bigger picture. To date, most signs indicate that Obama sees the bigger picture as well. It’s one of the main reasons why I voted for him. It’s the reason why I celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. today.
Cheryl Contee aka "Jill Tubman", Baratunde Thurston aka "Jack Turner", rikyrah, Leutisha Stills aka "The Christian Progressive Liberal", B-Serious, Casey Gane-McCalla, Jonathan Pitts-Wiley aka "Marcus Toussaint," Fredric Mitchell
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