All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem. –Martin Luther King, Jr.
Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for the presidency on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s historic "I have a dream" speech. He was inaugurated the day after our national holiday celebrating the life and accomplishments of Dr. King. Many asked if Obama’s presidency was the realization of King’s dream. Cultural products, from t-shirts to YouTube videos, linked Obama’s election to King’s legacy.
Some observers have made far less complimentary comparisons between the men. Some self-professed keepers of King’s legacy have insisted that Barack Obama is embarrassingly anemic on issues of race. Remembering King as an uncompromising paragon of progressive politics, these "black leaders" judge Obama as a wishy-washy sell-out, unwilling to stand firm for his constituency.
This sentiment was perfectly captured last week in the outrageous comments of African American Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson. Lost in the din surrounding Harry Reid’s "Negro dialect" comments and Rush Limbaugh’s scandalous tirade about Haiti, was Dyson’s assertion that "Barack Obama runs from race like a black man runs from a cop."
Dyson’s comment is both offensive -to President Obama and to black men in general- and false- no other American presidential candidate paused in the middle of a campaign to deliver an exquisite commentary on race. Still, Dyson’s sentiment is indicative of a small, but vocal group of black public intellectuals who have regularly criticized Obama during his campaign and his presidency.
Often comparing Obama explicitly to Dr. King, they conclude the President lacks the moral courage or Leftist determination of the civil rights icon.
I disagree. Barack Obama is stunningly similar to Martin Luther King, Jr., but to see this similarity we must relinquish the false, reconstructed memories of perfection we currently project onto King.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a political philosopher and dedicated freedom fighter, but he was also a pragmatic political strategist. Seen through the perfecting lens of martyrdom, King appears to be to be an uncompromising progressive leader, undeterred by seemingly insurmountable challenges, willing to risk all to achieve the goals of his movement.
To see King exclusively in these terms requires active, willful revision of history. In his political work, King was surprisingly like President Obama. And I don’t mean the oratory.
Consider this. Martin Luther King Jr. turned his back on Bayard Rustin. Rustin was his dear friend and trusted advisor. Rustin was the architect of the March on Washington. A fierce, lifelong pacifist, Rustin shepherded a young King through his first non-violent, direct action protests. Without Rustin there would have been no March on Washington and no national audience for the articulation of King’s great dream.
Yet when he was pressed, Martin Luther King Jr. eventually disavowed Rustin and ejected him from the movement. Rustin asked King for his support, but King turned his back on Rustin. King rejected Rustin because Rustin was gay and socialist.
Faced with the political realities of homophobia and America’s red scare, King chose to silence Rustin. King decided defending Rustin would distract the movement from its central goal of achieving an end to racial segregation.