A couple of articles have inspired me to add a brief word about this MLK Day. (See Boyce Watkins at TheGrio.com) Hopefully, my words are in keeping with both the spirit and beliefs of Dr. King himself.
A year ago this week, I joined nearly 3 million people in the nation’s capital for the inauguration of President Obama. The entire week, especially inauguration day, encapsulated much of what I understand about the “civil rights” movement and Dr. King’s legacy. Being a child of the 1980s, my understanding of Dr. King and the movement is a contested conglomeration of familial discussions, white-frame “civil rights” history, and independent study. Like most people my age, I may well be more in touch with the myth than the memory of King.
The morning of the inauguration seemed to mirror King’s 1963 march. The crowd came from all over the country and braved extreme temperatures (if on opposite ends of the thermometer) with grace and enthusiasm. The millions on the Mall that morning were very conscious of the parallels between contemporary and 1963 events. I saw hundreds of middle-aged and elderly African Americans making their way to the service. Everyone was so appreciative of their presence and sacrifices. I am convinced no Black person over age 60 would have had to so much as touch the ground with her own feet if she did not want. It was truly a remarkable and unforgettable moment.
The event itself was a reflection of what we were all celebrating. In name, we were witnessing a ceremony centered on one man, Barack Obama. In truth, we were actually there to culminate and celebrate a massive, multiracial, cross-coalitional effort that we hoped would produce meaningful and lasting institutional change. Everyone cheered the new president, but we all shared stories of sustained local efforts to mobilize America’s oppressed classes. The mass effort and happy gathering reflect the hopeful imagery and activist narrative associated with Dr. King.
After partying with friends (and strangers), I decided it was time to go home. On the edge of one of D.C.’s many Black neighborhoods, I found myself in need of a cab to get home. After a few blocks, I reached a busy corner and tried hailing a cab. Despite the festive occasion, I received the same treatment we Black men (and women) receive all the time. Cab after cab passed me by and quickly picked up white passengers.
A young white woman, whose name I still do not know, witnessed the entire scene. The hour growing very late at this point, she confidently approached me with a brilliant offer. If I would use my status as Black and male to safely escort her to the next corner where she was meeting some friends, she would use her status as a white female to get me a cab. I quickly agreed. Within 30 seconds of connecting her with her friends, the white woman told me to follow her to a cab. She said she would hail the cab and when the cabbie opened the door for her (a taken for granted response), I was to jump in. Local law, apparently, prevented cabbies from evicting passengers without cause. Needless to say, she executed the plan flawlessly and got me home without at hitch.
The past year, like inauguration day itself, is a microcosm of Dr. King’s life and legacy. Having won symbolic federal victories and peering briefly over the mountain at the potential for meaningful change. We forgot that these victories required massive mobilization and sustained multiracial, cross-class effort. Instead, we allowed white media to attribute the work to one man, and we left that man to carry it out virtually alone. In life, Dr. King never labored alone. But the mythological legacy recast him as a great man, producing systemic change through personal will and determination alone. That myth, now thrown onto Obama, has left Obama to labor alone (to the extent he actually wants to). Obama’s isolation is evidenced by the general failure of the DNC to remobilize the massive campaign volunteers in support of the president’s agenda (see NYT article “Health Debate Fails to Ignite Obama’s Grassroots” and The Washington Post’s “Obama’s Machine Sputters in Effort to Push Budget” for examples.
Part of the reason the multiracial grassroots effort “sputters” also parallels King’s life and legacy. Despite the rhetoric of the times, neither the day-to-day structure of the United States remained then and now. My anecdote about getting a cab makes the case for the moment of Obama’s inauguration. As Dr. Watkins’s points out, “Dr. King was very unpopular at the time of his death” as he tried to realize the goals outlined in his speeches. Whites never fully embraced King in life. Their support for his impotent corpse and white-framed memory would not convince Dr. King.
Obama’s situation is similar. As Harvey-Wingfield and Feagin (2010) document, the majority of whites voted against now President Obama. A recent article in The New York Times () documents whites’ increasing opposition to Obama:
According to an analysis of New York Times and CBS News polls, Obama has the lowest approval rating among whites at the end of his first year in office than any president in the 30 years that The Times and CBS News have collected such data. And the gap between Obama and the others is significant, ranging from 10 to 36 percentage points.
Like Israelites in the wilderness, whites dream of Egypt, a plurality saying Obama is a worse president than George W. Bush.
This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I hope and pray we will learn the lessons Dr. King taught us. Regardless of what the majority of people say, progressive American rhetoric remains miles ahead of its deeds (see King’s brilliant sermon “Paul’s Letter to American Christians”) and gradualism is not the answer. Only collective action, creative and sustained civil disobedience, and mobilization of people of color and poor–for whom cooptation and/or cessation are not viable options—are the only potential means for achieving and sustaining real and systemic change.