Tuesday, January 16, 2007

MLK, Obama

I had hoped to write something about MLK day yesterday but did not get around to it. But today's news of Barack Obama announcing his decision to run for President is historic and honors the legacy of MLK.

There have been other African Americans who ran for President: 1972 - Shirley Chisholm (first African American woman elected to Congress), Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, and (I am sorry to have to mention this) Alan Keyes sometime in the 1990s. There may have been others.

Obama brings something different than those candidates. He has a transcendent quality which allows non-Blacks to view him as not just a Black candidate while at the same time he is not viewed by those in the Black community as abandoning his roots or heritage or the politics of the Black community. It is an intangible element, an element that Bobby Kennedy certainly had. That different constituents and communities are able to view him as representing the best of their particular values, and by embodying a spirit which is broad enough to attract disparate communities, he is seen as a uniter, and thereby, in him, they see hope.

I would say Jesse Jackson had a transcendent quality in his oratory; he could inspire and galvanize you right out of your seat. And if you listened to him, he preached a philosophy that sought to unite the poor and the middle class to fight against common enemies of greed, poverty, and economic hardship. That was the Rainbow Coalition. But he was never viewed seriously outside the Black community; he was viewed as too radical, too outside the mainstream. I don't think it was his involvement in the civil rights movement, but certain anti-Semitic comments which were alluded to him. In any event, I supported him.

I was too young to know much about Chisholm's campaign, and I am not even going to mention Mr. Keyes, and will refrain from using the moniker given to him by Borat out of respect for MLK.

But Obama is the real deal: community organizer, attorney, state senator, and Senator. He also carries the imprimatur of elite status which for better or for worse soundly establishes his mainstream acceptablity: graduate of Columbia Unversity and Harvard Law.
Some say that he is too inexperienced to serve as President. Of course, it was another Illinoisian who ran for President after two years in the Senate and a stretch in the state senate: Abraham Lincoln. Those are high standards to meet and it is not fair to raise such comparisons.

But what Obama brings is the ability to inspire people beyond the ordinary politics, beyond partisanship, and most importantly for me, still bring a progressive vision to people. I have always believed that a progressive politics is not just a liberal or conservative one but one that demonstrates that social justice, and economic opportunity, among other progressive values benefit the majority of poor and middle class people.

Another parallel characterstic is that while MLK and RFK both opposed the Vietnam War during their times, Obama is also steadfastly against our current war in Iraq. The progressive vision is that misplaced militarism is not consistent with a just and conscientious society. Such militarism deprives resources that can ease the suffering of many people, whether it is economic hardship and poverty, lack of health care, lack of housing, inadequate education, and the list goes on.
MLK said it best in his historic 1967 antiwar speech at Riverside Church:

"A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. S o I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such."

I dare not say that Obama is akin to MLK, and only time will tell if he can inspire the populace like RFK, but I am encouraged that his candidacy may push the country's politics in a new direction.

In honor of MLK, in the words of RFK, and in the hopes of a Obama candidacy that can inspire people the way those two leaders did before both were assassinated within two months of each other in 1968:
Indianapolis, Indiana - April 4, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy
Ladies and Gentlemen - I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening. Because...

I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.

For those of you who are black - considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible - you can be filled with
bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization - black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.
For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

(Interrupted by applause)

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, yeah that's true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love - a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

(Interrupted by applause)
Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.
Thank you very much.


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