The Descent: From Dr. King to Barack Obama
Last year, as part of the annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, one of President Obama’s top advisors paid a visit to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church of Dr. Martin Luther King. The advisor, Valerie Jarrett, received a standing ovation from the assembled congregation when she shared the story of how Pres. Obama was responsible for the killing of an unarmed Osama bin Laden as members of his family looked on. I share this strange and surreal scene from Ebenezer Church, where the largely African American congregation endorsed the killing of another human being – while in church – because I think it captures the vast historical and moral distance between two distinct periods: the period of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Dr.King emerged as the symbolic leader of the civil rights wing of the ongoing Black liberation movement and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964; and the era of Barack Obama, launched with his ascendancy to the highest political office in the country and the winning of the Nobel Prize in 2008. Two periods and two awards that, when linked, serve as yet another confirmation of the moral decline of liberalism among white and black people over the last four decades.
By using the Nobel Peace Prize as book ends to link these two eras, I am not suggesting that the Nobel Peace Prize represents an objective, universal moral standard. I see the Nobel Prize as just another desperate and delusional need on the part of international liberalism to believe that its worldview, affirmations of legitimacy and moral proclamations still carry the same weight and importance that the power of hegemony allowed them to for many years. For those of us who have been “othered” by the colonial project that is Western modernity and experienced its dark side of murder, dispossession, slavery and genocide, Western ethical and moral hypocrisy has long since been revealed to us as a deadly reality.
With a lens shaped by decades and centuries of oppression, rationalized and normalized by Western liberal philosophy, we have watched over the years with bemused outrage the narcissistic morality-play that is the Nobel Peace Prize – from the awarding of the prize to Jan Smits, the racist leader of apartheid South Africa, to the cynical joke of awarding a peace prize to the European Union last year. But as markers for the trajectory of liberal politics in the U.S. and among African Americans, Dr. King and Barack Obama as Nobel Peace Prize winners offers some important cultural and political insights.
Dr. King was the product of the black struggle for democratic and human rights in the U.S. and became the standard-bearer for an oppositional moral stance and hope for the future globally. His relative silence on the U.S. imperialist war in Vietnam was a source of great moral tension for him and elements of his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. However, on April 4, 1967 in the Riverside Church, exactly one year to the day before he would be murdered by a “lone assassin,” he addressed those critics who felt that he had no business opposing any aspect of U.S. foreign policy and took an unambiguous stance on the Vietnam War. In that speech, he shared the political and moral dilemma he grappled with:
“As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”
For Dr. King, the war in Vietnam and the support given to it by the majority of the American people was a “symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” War and the fixation on violence, the ideological justifications and rationalizations for racism, economic inequality and all forms of oppression – they were all interrelated for Dr. King.
And while that stance earned him the wrath of liberals in the Johnson Administration, the philanthropic community and even among the clergy, both black and white, he said he did not have a choice but to speak out, because he believed that those who understood what was at stake had a responsibility to do so. For Dr. King, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize gave him an even greater responsibility:
“I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission — a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for ‘the brotherhood of man’. This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances…”
Dr. King’s commitment to non-violence, peace and love for humanity was complete and unshakable, despite the enormous personal and political costs he endured, including threats to his life, which intensified once he opposed the war.
In the 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech given by the newly-elected Barack Obama, he presented an argument for the concept of a “just war.” Startling many in the Oslo audience, Pres. Obama forcefully asserted in what many would begin to refer to as the “Obama doctrine” that: “We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”
While Dr. King condemned the violence, warmongering and colonialism of the U.S. historically and in Vietnam specifically, Obama’s position is that:
“The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.”
While Dr. King believed that violence ultimately did not solve any problem and that war left “little more than a calamitous legacy of human suffering, political turmoil, and spiritual disillusionment,” Obama argues that war, the highest expression of violence and terror, is not only justified and necessary, he also told the gathered guests in Oslo that the U.S. had the right to act unilaterally to wage war.
Humanitarian intervention as a hallmark of the “new” neo-conservative hegemony in U.S. politics was also reflected in his speech: “I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That’s why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.”
Obama’s defenders argue that the difference in tone and substance between Dr. King’s speech and positions and those of Pres. Obama is due to the fact that Dr. King was a public figure and not tasked with the heavy responsibilities of governing, with all the complexities that entails. And they would be right. His position as “Commander-in-Chief” can easily explain why he was silent on the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008-09; boycotted the Durban follow-up process; continued and expanded the repressive domestic policies of the Bush era with the National Defense Authorization Act; signed-off on drone kills, including the killing of U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki and his sixteen-year-old son; supported the NATO war of opportunity on Libya and the current funding, arming and political legitimacy to Islamic fascists in Syria. For these are the positions one takes when one is the head of a desperate and declining hegemon committed to using subversion, deception, repression and direct military violence to maintain its global empire and, by extension, the collective colonialist interests of the white West.
These positions have been espoused by an opportunist politician who is in the service of global white supremacy. What cannot be easily explained, however, is how the vast majority of African Americans have been taken along this ride to neo-conservatism. And not just African Americans – the whole liberal establishment, from human rights activists who give political cover for the arrogant and racist assumptions contained in the doctrines of “humanitarian intervention” and the “right to protect,” to the business labor unions, anti-war activists, women’s organizations, civil rights groups, media – most pathetically personified by MSNBC – all of these groups have suffered a moral and political collapse that has allowed “normal” politics in the U.S. to be moved to the border of right-wing fascism.
The collapse is not just represented in U.S. politics. The events in Newtown, Connecticut and in other towns across the U.S. have confirmed, despite the diversionary discussion of gun control, that there is something sick at the core of American culture. Can you really dismiss the culture of violence thesis when the majority of Americans still support the death penalty, 70 percent of American liberals support drone strikes that clearly kill innocent people, and an overwhelming majority of the people supported Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza?
Today, the dream of more equitable income distribution; a government restrained in its use of war; racial justice; environmental protection; gender justice; and a vision of a United States that has been decolonized, in the literal sense of the word, is further from being realized than ever. As African Americans, we are experiencing our most profound existential crisis since our collective experience of being enslaved, even with a “Black President.” What happened?
In 1964, when King received his award, and in the subsequent years before he was murdered, the colonialist/capitalist nature of the U.S. State was the same as it is today, but we still saw Pres. Johnson’s “Great Society” program targeting poverty, the passage of progressive legislation expanding democratic rights, and a whole host of reformist concessions. Why? Emerging from the political spaces and culture of resistance created by the civil rights and Black Liberation Movement, the struggle for society-wide social justice intensified and the balance of forces were starting to move toward the people and deeper reforms. Even though reform liberalism was under sustained attack by the strengthening right-wing grouped around Barry Goldwater, the moral and ethical concerns of Dr. King regarding the need to eradicate poverty; eliminate, or at least reduce, U.S. imperialist adventures and wars; and finally solve the country’s problem of racial oppression still received significant support among liberals and many other Americans.
Today, liberalism has completely collapsed politically and morally. People who self-identify as liberals are supporting policies and positions they would never support if those policies were being pushed by Republicans. Their condemnation of torture under the Bush administration is countered by liberal Hollywood’s glorification of it in Zero Dark Thirty, and their anti-war stance, always challenged by their ultimate support for empire, has all but completely disappeared under the Obama Administration. So no one notices when a sycophant like Rev. Al Sharpton explains on his show how the Obama drone program is misunderstood by leftist critics, and when Rev. Eric Michael Dyson calls Libyan leader Muammar Ghadafi a dictator, and justifies his murder and the NATO gangster-ism that recolonized the country.
Pres. Obama did say something in his Oslo speech that resonated with those of us who believe that human rights, when rearticulated by the people, can be a weapon for radical change: “Security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine and shelter they need to survive. It does not exist where children can’t aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family. The absence of hope can rot a society from within.”
As we ready ourselves for four more years of an Obama Administration, let those of us who are not afraid of being ostracized, condemned and even persecuted use the occasion of Dr. King’s birthday and Pres. Obama’s re-inauguration, to re-commit to a vision – not a dream, but a life-affirming vision – of a society and world in which the fundamental human rights of all to a socially productive job at a livable wage; education; free health care; public services to address public needs; adequate housing; a clean environment; democratic participation in every sector of life, including in the economic sector; and a life not destroyed by the scourge of war are respected.
It is not too late, but it will require confronting our friends, colleagues and family members if we are to shake ourselves free from the strange, hypnotic trance that has gripped liberals and progressives of all stripes. Dr. King pointed us in the right direction just before he was assassinated when he reminded us that we were living in revolutionary times, and that the U.S. needed to get on the right side of the world revolution. And for the U.S. to do that it needed a revolution of values. With Western states gripped in an unsolvable capitalist economic crisis that has deepened poverty, exacerbated racism and xenophobia, and intensified class contradictions and struggle, the liberated knowledge and experience of peoples who were made barefoot and shirtless by European colonialism are creating new ways of living and seeing the world that will end up liberating all of us.
This is the reality of a new world that Dr. King could see from the mountaintop – and that a visionless technocrat like Pres. Obama and a moribund liberalism can never imagine.
Ajamu Baraka was the founding Director of the US Human Rights Network until June 2011. A long-time human rights activist and veteran of the Black Liberation, anti-war, anti-apartheid and central American solidarity Movements in the United States, Baraka has been in the forefront of efforts to develop a radical “People-Centered” perspective on human rights and to apply that framework to social justice struggles in the United States and abroad. He is currently a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he is editing a book on human rights entitled “The Fight Must be for Human Rights: Voices from the Frontline.” The book is due to be published in 2013.
 “Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence,” Rev. Martin Luther King, Riverside Church, April 4, 1967.
 “A Just and Lasting Peace,” President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance speech, Oslo, Norway, December 10, 2009.