“Directly in front of us is a pool that still reflects the dream of a King, and the glory of a people who marched and bled so that their children might be judged by their character’s content,” President-elect Barack Hussein Obama proclaimed from the Lincoln Memorial, two days before his inauguration. Standing amid a shivering yet rapturous sea of countless thousands who clung to the President-elect’s every word like a comforting mug of hot cocoa, I couldn’t help but wonder: Does this moment represent the fulfillment of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream?
In part. “An entire generation will grow up taking for granted that the highest office in the land is filled by an African American. It changes how black children look at themselves. It also changes how white children look at black children,” Obama told the Washington Post.
At the same time, let’s recall that Dr. King dreamed many dreams, not just one of racial equality. The U.S. government tends to portray a sanitized version of the preacher, devoid of his passionate advocacy for nonviolence, peace, and economic justice.
On April 4, 1967, exactly one year prior to his assassination, Dr. King delivered a revolutionary anti-war sermon. Dr. King condemned the U.S. government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today ... a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
For King, the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” were interconnected. King outlined how wealthy elites profited from U.S. imperialism, and poor people and people of color bore the burden. “I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures such as Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.”
King called for a “revolution of values” that would not simply put new people in power, but would invest a new power in people. King called this power nonviolence, or “soul force”—love for all life put into selfless and, at times, self-sacrificing service on behalf of the common welfare, the “beloved community.” “When I speak of love I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life.” King saw humanity facing a choice—“nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.”
In King’s vision, U.S. society would not change, it would transform. “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.” King sought to restructure not only social relations, but also the outmoded ways of thinking that give rise to man’s inhumanity to man.
On Monday night, Dr. King’s son Martin III told Larry King, “In relation to race, a monumental step has been made, but poverty and militarism are at epidemic levels.” Jesse Jackson wrote in Monday’s New York Times: “[If Dr. King were alive today], he would be beaming. I am equally confident that he would not let the euphoria of the moment blind us to the unfinished business that lies ahead.”
What would Dr. King think of Barack Obama’s policies? Were he a candidate for higher office, I imagine Dr. King’s platform would more closely resemble that of presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney, Ralph Nader, or Dennis Kucinich. Dr. King surely would have favored single-payer universal health care, justice and reparations for Bush/Cheney war crimes, an end to corporate welfare, a comprehensive renewable energy program, cutting the massive military budget, ending U.S. support for Israel’s Apartheid, a cabinet-level Department of Peace, and immediate steps toward global nuclear weapon abolition, to name a few.
To be fair, Obama is dealing with powerful, entrenched political interests who will do everything in their power to derail a progressive agenda. Would the platform described above have made Obama’s election impossible? One imagines that the Israel Lobby and the military contractors would have pumped truckloads of money into Hillary Clinton’s coffers in an effort to upend the primary results. I conversed with several democratic Congress members at inaugural balls, who told me the same thing: U.S. military aid to Israel is the “third rail” of U.S. politics. Challenge it, and you get politically electrocuted.
As crowds packed the national mall on Tuesday to witness the President’s swearing-in ceremony, my thoughts drifted to another part of the world, a place filled not with marble but rubble. Israel’s Gaza onslaught left over 1,000 dead and 4,500 wounded, mostly civilians, killed by bombs donated by the U.S. Government. Forty-three years ago, Dr. King said about Vietnam: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” The president-elect’s silence on Gaza was deafening.
A few weeks before the inauguration, another African-American candidate for president, Cynthia McKinney, boarded a Free Gaza boat in a nonviolent attempt to deliver medical supplies and humanitarian relief to Gazans. Israel’s navy rammed McKinney’s boat and nearly sank it. As McKinney’s boat began to take on water she reflected, “One of my mates told me to prepare to die. I was right with myself and my decision to join the Free Gaza movement … Our lives begin to end the day we remain silent about things that matter,” McKinney concluded, quoting Dr. King. McKinney wants the new president to discontinue military aid to Israel.
Were he alive today, I suppose King would add “environmental extractionism” to the great triplets. And King would note that as with militarism, poor people and people of color usually pay the heaviest price. UC’s Steven Chu—a biofuels and nuclear power cheerleader whom Obama tapped to run the Dept. of Energy—offers little hope for progressives with his recent about-face comments on coal. “I’m hopeful and optimistic that we can figure out how to use coal in a clean way,” Chu told the Senate, turning his back on reality and rural communities suffering from billions of gallons of hazardous coal ash sludge swirling through east Tennessee’s rivers, not to mention the Appalachian mountain wasteland.
If it yet be possible to save us from “spiritual death” and ecological calamity, the U.S. empire must end. Obama’s plans appear to offer no daylight. The military vampire sucks more than half of the country’s financial resources, and President Obama has pledged not to cut, but to expand the military. War will perhaps be ramped down in Iraq and ramped up in Afghanistan, but the President has announced no plan to end war.
Jesse Jackson is right. Much business is yet unfinished, the revolution of values perhaps only just begun. In Dr. King’s time, it took civil rights marchers enduring the beatings and assaults of white segregationist police to generate the political pressure for President Lyndon Johnson and the Congress to pass legislation. If we want our new president to not only be a physical embodiment of Dr. King’s dream, but also a policy advocate for a progressive agenda, it is up to the people to carry forward the torch of committed nonviolent action and push Obama in a progressive direction.
At the Southern Regional inaugural ball, one of the 10 official galas where thousands of sharply dressed revelers waited hours for a brief glimpse of the First Couple, Obama closed the festivities with a cheek-to-cheek dance with a beaming Michelle. “Let’s get to work on remaking America,” the new president said as he exited. Earlier that day, Civil Rights Movement leader Rev. Joseph Lowery articulated what should be the aim of our work: “Lord, deliver us from the exploitation of the poor and from favoritism toward the rich … Let us work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation … when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
If we believe that the dream has come true and forget the rest, we will shortchange Dr. King’s legacy as surely as the U.S. government does every time it trumpets “I have a dream” while omitting his revolutionary words of April 4, 1967 from the collective consciousness. Let’s work on remaking Barack Obama into the president that Dr. King would have wanted, and ourselves the nonviolent actors King sought to inspire.
Matthew Taylor (www.matthewtaylor.net) is writing a book about the Save Memorial Oak Grove treesit.