The Martin Luther King That America and Obama Ignore

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The civil rights leader Martin Luther KIng (C) waves to supporters 28 August 1963 on the Mall in Washington DC (Washington Monument in background) during the 'March on Washington'. King said the march was 'the greatest demonstration of freedom in the history of the United States.' Martin Luther King was assassinated on 04 April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. Getty

In President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union speech he invoked, as he often does, the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about how “voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love” represented the most potent weapons against injustice.  

But King would likely be disappointed by the glaring absence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in Obama’s final remarks to the nation. Indeed, the groundswell of protests, demonstrations, and movements for racial and economic justice that have spread across U.S. cities, highways, and university campuses this past year echo the political landscape King confronted half a century ago.

As a nation, we more comfortably remember King’s political activism during the Civil Rights Movement’s heroic years, between the 1954 Supreme Court Brown decision that outlawed public school segregation and the August 6, 1965 signing of the Voting Rights Act. King proved to be this era’s leading political mobilizer, if not its most effective organizer. From his earliest participation as a spokesperson for the 1955-56 Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott, where he witnessed the organizing prowess of stalwart local leaders — most notably Rosa Parks — to his forays into direct action in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama during the first half of 1960s, King trusted that comprehensive political legislation and court ruling would usher in a new era of racial equality and black citizenship.

Racial violence that exploded in Watts, California five days after the passage of the Voting Rights Act convinced King that racial equality required a massive move for economic justice. On this score he moved to Chicago in 1966, living in a housing project to illustrate the deplorable conditions faced by the nation’s poorest residents.

Over the next two years, King became America’s leading revolutionary voice.  He emerged as a thoughtful critic of the insurgent Black Power protests led by Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee Chairman Stokely Carmichael. Rejecting aspects of the movement that advocated violence or anti-white attitudes, King embraced the dynamic militancy and impatience of a newer generation of activists.  His rapprochement with Carmichael drew him to forcefully denounce the Vietnam War, and his meetings with welfare rights organizers helped shape his Poor People’s Campaign, a movement he was deeply committed to right up until his death.

This is the King that America and Obama ignore at our own peril.

Black Lives Matter (BLM), like its civil rights and Black Power-era forerunners, represents a proactive response to our contemporary era of deepening economic and racial inequality.  The movement’s combative tone, disruptive tactics, and bold posture has galvanized a new generation of activists even as it's inspired a conservative backlash.

Fifty years ago, the same criticism being leveled against BLM activists was being deployed not only against Black Power radicals, but Dr. King. The increasingly strident tone of King’s political rhetoric, which characterized America as an imperial power, criticized the War on Poverty as a token effort being overwhelmed by Vietnam War expenditures, and called for a guaranteed income for all, turned the March On Washington keynote speaker and Nobel Peace Prize recipient into an increasingly unpopular figure.

King located American democracy’s enduring power in “the right to protest for right,” an axiom that today’s Black Lives Matter activists have enthusiastically embraced. Then, King juxtaposed the War on Poverty and Vietnam War as twin failures of the nation’s moral and political imagination.  Now, Black Lives Matters leaders have identified the entire criminal justice system as a complex and interlocking gateway of social and political oppression, one whose tentacles reach public schools, housing projects, voting rights, employment opportunities, and overall life chances.

King’s most profound legacy was not in winning the battle against structural racism, inequality, and white supremacy — because he did not. Posthumously hailed as an oracle of boldness, the living King frightened presidents, politicians, and the powerful, who ignored his final pleas for justice even as they eulogized him in death as the nation’s unquestioned moral leader.

Obama’s eloquent final State of the Union traded in a unique kind of rhetorical sleight of hand. He dutifully invoked King and quickly praised the racial justice protests taking place across the country, without acknowledging how America’s deepening racial divisions and economic inequality betray King’s memory and legacy. 

Obama’s brilliant speechmaking prowess and tendency to publicly invoke King’s words in public have often served, however unwittingly, to enhance his own reputation at King’s expense.

Dr. King was never a politician. On the contrary, he was a revolutionary social movement leader whose efforts forced political leaders and the whole nation to face uncomfortable truths. King’s relationship with politicians ebbed and flowed based on the political and historical context. Between 1963-1965 American democracy stood at a tipping point, something President John F. Kennedy publicly acknowledged during a historic June 11, 1963 televised address to the nation. The nation was witnessing, asserted Kennedy, a “revolution” that would be peaceful or violent, depending on the will of citizens and leaders. Over the next two year Lyndon Johnson went even further, casting peaceful activists in Selma as the direct heirs of the Founding Fathers. For a brief moment it seemed that the “Great Wells of Democracy” King wrote about from a Birmingham jail cell would prove capacious enough to accommodate black citizenship and racial justice.

Between 1966 and 1968 King’s relationship with the president and mainstream American political leaders and discourse grew star-crossed, as he continued — like an Old Testament prophet — to demand a reckoning for the nation’s glaring social, political, and economic inequalities.  Less than four years after dining with royalty at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo King would find his rendezvous with destiny among black garbage workers in the racially and economically segregated city of Memphis.

The triple threats to humanity—militarism, racism, and materialism—that King cited near the end of his life have increased, rather than diminished, in our own time.

The full measure of King’s legacy requires nothing less than to honestly wrestle with hard truths that he publicly confronted a half century ago and that remain perhaps even more fiercely urgent in our own time than his.