In choosing to take the oath of office for his second term on Monday using a Bible owned by Martin Luther King Jr. on the day set aside to celebrate the life of this great American, let us hope that President Obama recognizes that the enormity of the challenge of living up to that legacy.
It is true, as US Rep. John Lewis has said, that without King there would be no Obama. But let’s not make the mistake of reducing the breadth of King’s life work into the achievement of electing one man of African descent to the highest office in the land.
The prophetic vision of King and the principles for which he laid down his life pose an awesome challenge to people of good will and concern. Let us hope that the president is up to the task, and that we as citizens are up to the task, for if we are not with him when he takes a stand for what is right then he is utterly powerless to accomplish anything in the face of powerful entrenched interests and adversity.
We think of King mainly as the great orator and civil rights leader who shattered the structure of Jim Crow racism in the South, which for decades previously consigned black people to second-class citizenship through a system of customs and legal codes. We haven’t owned up to the new system of oppression, which Michelle Alexander so eloquently describes in The New Jim Crow, in which people of color are arrested, convicted and imprisoned at a higher rate for soft drug offenses despite being no more likely to use or sell drugs. Our prison population has exploded over the past three decades, reinforcing a new, racialized caste system in which ex-felons are considered unemployable, unworthy and expendable.
King’s vision was not limited to racism and civil rights. The other two great causes of his life — opposing militarism and fighting poverty — are often overlooked. People often forget that when he was assassinated in 1968, King was in Memphis supporting a sanitation workers’ strike. He was organizing a Poor People’s Campaign to bring together poor people — black, white, Native American and Latino — to Washington, DC to demand economic justice.
He opposed unnecessary, adventurist military interventions abroad, Vietnam in particular, because they drained off funds that were sorely needed to meet human needs for healthcare, education and job training.
Speaking at Grosse Pointe High School a short month before his death in 1968, King said that he still believed nonviolence was “the most potent weapon available” for obtaining freedom and justice, but he said it wasn’t enough to condemn the riots that gave voice to frustration. People of good will must also condemn the conditions that give rise to civil disorder.
“What is it that America has failed to hear?” he asked. “It has failed to hear that the plight of the poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and democracy have not been met. It has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned with tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
As expected, Obama paid homage to King in a fashion during his inaugural address on Monday, alluding to the marchers who came to the Lincoln Monument in 1963 “to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.”
The emphasis on the mutuality of humanity is an important part of King’s message, but let’s not lose sight of the more radical challenge embodied in his life.
Obama yoked King’s legacy in service of great and worthy causes: equal pay for women, equal rights for gays, equal access to the ballot box, fairness to immigrants and safety from gun violence.
Earlier in his speech, he tiptoed around the great economic challenges of our age.
“We know that American thrives when every person can find independence and pride in work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship,” Obama said. “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else; because she is American, she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”
If we were honest, we would acknowledge that she does not have the same chances to succeed as everyone else.
Four years into the Obama administration, the trend lines are still headed in the wrong direction.
Two years before George W. Bush took office, in 1999, 13.6 percent of families with children were living in poverty in the United States. By the time Obama took office in 2009 at the dawn of the Great Recession, 16.6 percent of families were in poverty. And two years later, in 2011, the rate had edged up to 18.6 percent. In our state, more that one in five families with children are in poverty.
Unlike in the 1960s, poor sections of cities are not exploding in riots.
Attacking poverty was the significant final cause of Martin Luther King Jr. It is the great challenge of our time. It is a shame that most of what we hear about it is resounding silence.