A reporter asked a young boy wearing a T-shirt adorned with the images of President Barack Obama and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. what they signified. The youngster, without hesitation, said “Dr. King represents the dream, and President Obama represents the reality.”
He was much too young to have known anything about the “dreamer,” but from television, radio, newspapers, magazines and the Internet, Obama was someone his 12-year-old mind readily grasped and understood. But the T-shirt and the wonderful image of Dr. King was his gateway back to the past to understand the direct connection between the dreamer and the reality he was currently enjoying. And it’s unfortunate that Obama hasn’t done a very good job of explaining that relationship.
Obama has written two very engrossing books, but other than a brief mention of Dr. King, along with other American legends, there is no extended discussion. In fact, in “Dreams from My Father,” he gives more attention to Malcolm X, recalling how valuable the leader’s autobiography was to him as he grappled with his color and manhood.
Toward the end of his acceptance speech on August 28 in Denver at Invesco Field, Obama did allude to Dr. King when he spoke of the American promise: “And it is that promise that, 45 years ago today, brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a mall in Washington, before Lincoln’s Memorial and hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream.”
For some reason, perhaps for poetic effect, he felt it better not to say Dr. King’s name, though he mentioned John Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lincoln. Nor was Dr. King mentioned by name in Obama’s victory speech in Chicago on November 4, but once more alluded to when he said while extolling the virtues and longevity of Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106 year-old Black woman: “She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that We Shall Overcome.”
While Obama could quote Lincoln and give him attribution, he chose to lift Dr. King’s phrase about the “moral arc of the universe is long but bends toward justice” to fit his own words by remarking, “It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”
None of this is done to belittle or to impugn Obama, but it is rather curious that on two momentous occasions he chose not to put his victory in context by citing Dr. King’s name. Sometimes, particularly for our younger generation, things have to be made explicit, as Malcolm X said, “Make it plain,” so they know who Dr. King was, the reality of his dream and the thousands who struggled with him on the ramparts to bring about justice and equality in America.
In a few days, on January 15, the nation will begin observing the anniversary of Dr. King’s birthday. Were his life not brutally extinguished in 1968, he would be 80 years old. Some believe he had a premonition that he wasn’t going to live to see a day like today when the world is getting ready to celebrate the inauguration of the first Black president of the United States. And he must have known the trail he had blazed, the sacrifices he had made, though he tended, in his self-effacing way, to turn the attention from him and on the issues he championed.
If he were alive, as he did when he walked among us, he would be concerned about the terrible state of our economy, and if the rich are crying the blues, he would intuitively know the poor are facing utter despair. He would be appalled at the turmoil and death in the Middle East, with a special interest in the innocent victims of the conflict.
Like Obama, much has been made of Dr. King the dreamer. But that’s to suggest that his life stopped after the March on Washington in 1963. Those unwilling to examine his days beyond the pinnacle of the Civil Rights Movement miss a more radicalized King, one uncompromisingly outraged by the then-ongoing war in Vietnam, choosing to dwell on his speech in Washington rather than his anti-war speech a year before his assassination at Riverside Church. They prefer the King in Selma rather than King in Chicago, Los Angeles and finally in Memphis, where the working poor summoned his spirit.
Dr. King’s selflessness was one of his most redeeming traits. And he would have us never forget those nameless freedom fighters who only recently have begun to get their due recognition–Lamar Smith, who was gunned down by white racists in 1955 in Brookhaven, Mississippi, the voter registration forms still clutched in his hands, and the Rev. George Lee, a courageous activist, who was also the victim of arch-segregationists the same year not too far from where Smith was slain. Recently, Rev. James Bevel joined the ancestors. To be sure, he was an imperfect human being, but who among us can make a claim of perfection? Dr. King himself was heir to human foibles. If only we could reverse Shakespeare’s words about the “evil that men do lives after them, the good is often interred in their bones. “Rev. Bevel will probably, unfortunately, be remembered for his evil deeds rather than by the significant contributions he made to the liberation struggle in this country. And some are even singling out Dr. King’s missteps, focusing on his failings rather than his successes.
Dr. King would also be mindful of those who have sought the Oval Office before Obama, most notably Shirley Chisholm and the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. If Obama finds it difficult to mention Dr. King’s name, there’s no way to expect he will give too much time and attention to those of his immediate predecessors in the quest for the White House.
But we must learn to speak Dr. King’s name; not only to speak it, but to explain who he was and what he did to bring about the first “change” in America. What’s in a name? Everything, particularly when it is one of America’s most cherished and revered names. Even Bill Clinton, in his second inaugural address, mentioned Dr. King by name when he said: “Thirty-four years ago, the man whose life we celebrate today spoke to us down there, at the other end of this mall, in words that moved the conscience of a nation. Like a prophet of old, he told of his dream that one day America would rise up and treat all its citizens as equals before the law and in the heart. Martin Luther King’s dream was the American dream. His quest is our quest: the ceaseless striving to live out our true creed. Our history has been built on such dreams and labors.”
Maybe, just maybe, President Obama will get it right during his inaugural address. Now that would truly be audacious and change.