Obama ‘is no Martin Luther King’

Many African-Americans have drawn parallels between Obama and Martin Luther King (EPA)

Many African-Americans have drawn parallels between Obama and Martin Luther King (EPA)

Glen Ford, the executive editor of Black Agenda Report, explains why he rejects ties between the US president-elect and the iconic civil rights leader.

The two days touch: Dr Martin Luther King’s Birthday observance and Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, January 19 and 20, respectively.

To many, the juxtaposition is self-evident confirmation of the intersection of the two men’s missions.

Dr King’s journey, which ended with his murder in 1968, and Obama’s ascent to the presidency, are seen to merge as the dates approach to form a perfect, tragic-glorious symmetry – a 48-hour revelation.

The coincidence of the calendar makes for good copy and grand sermons, but in fact reveals a great moral and political dissonance.

It is true that there could have been no Obama presidency had Dr King and the movement he sprang from not existed, but that simple fact of history does not amount to a King benediction from the grave for Obama’s moral character and political policies.

Indeed, Dr King’s life and words are indelible evidence that he and Obama represent opposing moral and political camps.

Tens of millions of African-Americans – who did not choose the little-known Obama to be their champion, but supported him near-universally at the polls once his candidacy had been made “viable” – will celebrate a vicarious attainment of power when Obama is sworn in.

Yet when confronted on Obama’s political agenda, enough of which has been put in motion and otherwise made plain since election day, few Black Obama supporters can mount a cogent defence.

Policy vacuum

“Better than McCain” doesn’t cut it, anymore.

When the New York Times describes the emerging Obama administration as “centre-right,” there is not much for an honest progressive to defend – and most African-Americans are progressive on economic issues and questions of war and peace.

Beyond a ritual counting of the president-elect’s African-American appointees, most African-Americans seem oblivious to the political nature of his cabinet, his policy pronouncements and shameful silences.

More likely, they pretend to be oblivious so as not to lose that once-in-a-lifetime feeling that happened when a black man won.

It is not simply that the Obama-ites failed to muster a defence in Harlem or Baltimore or other venues; admittedly, it is difficult to defend the indefensible.

What is most shocking – maddening – is their rejection of any political or moral standard for evaluating the black soon-to-be president.

All that remains is the fact of Obama’s power and the delusion that blacks somehow share in that power.

There is no thought of speaking the truth to those in power, and certainly no place for a moral compass in such a valueless void.

Military spending

We can understand, then, how people would imagine Obama and Dr King to be soul mates.

The fact that one of these men fought his whole life against the forces of militarism and economic exploitation, while the other empowers, and is empowered by, bankers and militarists, does not register on their anaesthetised moral and political sensors.

If the Obama-ites had more presence of mind, they would avoid comparisons with Dr King, which can only redound to Obama’s great detriment.

King’s break with his one-time ally, Lyndon Johnson, the former president, set the standard for both political and moral behaviour.

When it became clear that the war on poverty, a programme of government aid to help the poor in the mid-1960s, was doomed by the war in Vietnam, which acted “like some demonic destructive suction tube,” devouring all available resources, King publicly declared against the war.

In doing so, he severed what had been the most productive relationship between a US president and a black leader in US history.

But the war gave him no choice, since military expenditures made “rehabilitation” of the American poor impossible.

Both morality and politics led to the same conclusion: the movement could not coexist with war.

The lesson is directly applicable today, but Americans, black and white, find it difficult to recognise the characters.

Obama is Lyndon Johnson.

Historical comparisons

National revitalisation, including redress of historical African-American grievances, is impossible unless military expenditures are dramatically reduced.

But Obama is committed to putting 100,000 new pairs of Marine and Army “boots on the ground,” an expanded war in Afghanistan/Pakistan and a generally bigger US military footprint on the planet.

This, in the midst of global economic collapse.

Dr King would find creative ways to confront Obama’s militarism, and to actively resist further diversion of public wealth to the bankers.

Were he to survey the current political scene, King would be most impressed, not with the Obamas’ party plans for the night after his birthday, but with the way that a daughter of Georgia salvaged Black America’s moral reputation at the beginning of Israel’s assault on Gaza.

Cynthia McKinney’s [US former Green Party presidential candidate] attempted voyage of solidarity with the besieged people of Gaza on the medical relief boat Dignity, rammed and almost sunk by Israeli warships, reminds the world that not all African-Americans have morphed into warmongering clones of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

Thanks to the presence of the former Georgia congresswoman on the mission, millions of Arabs have been made aware of a different ‘Black America’ one that is not silent, like Barack Obama, in the face of a purposely inflicted human rights catastrophe.

Some of us are still in our right minds.

Hopefully, most of the others will recover, sooner rather than later.

Glen Ford is executive editor of Black Agenda Report – an edited version of this article appeared on its website.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.


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