It befouls the memory of Dr. King to have invited Obama to speak. He represents the antithesis of everything Dr. King dreamed of and worked for. Yes, I was there in 1963, where the air was filled with the spirit of justice, justice not as an abstraction, not as a catchword deceive about interventions abroad and entrenched poverty at home, but justice as the full democratization of America, in which racial segregation conveyed the salience of a structure and society grounded in wealth-inequality, ideological themes supporting aggression against the weak, veneration of wealth, and extreme loathing of dissent, and the arrogance of militaristic preeminence as the basis for global leadership.
The themes have not changed; democratization is further away than in 1963. What has changed is, there is no Dr. King now in American life, only the timeservers for militarism and corporate wealth, of which Obama represents the gold standard: “I have a Dream” vs. the Killer of the Dream, indeed, all dreams of social decency and the affirmation of life.
I’d like to return to Dr. King’s speech, but first, if I may, I’d like to set the scene, my introductory note to the speech, in a documentary collection, co-edited with Frank Freidel, shortly after, when the moment was still fresh in my mind:
America witnessed an historic occasion on August 28, 1963. On that day approximately one quarter of a million people, Negro and white, oldtimers in the civil rights struggle such as A. Philip Randolph and high school students from the sit-in demonstrations, men in overalls fresh from the Danville jail and well-dressed professional people from New York and Los Angeles, came to Washington with one common resolve. As the largest living petition in American history, they gathered at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to call for effective civil rights legislation and equal job opportunities.
The mood of the March on Washington was dignified; there was no violence. In this setting, with the people listening to one speaker after another under the hot sun beating down, the expected moment finally came. Dr. Martin Luther King, spiritual leader of the civil rights movement and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, speaking slowly and with a cadence in his voice which caused many to close their eyes and move gently back and forth, articulated the aspirations of all who share his vision of America.
Dr. King’s vision of America transcended race, transcended class, transcended contemporary world politics, sought in the word brotherhood, just as did Paul Robeson in his soulful “black or white or tan,” The Purest Kind of a Guy, a unitary humankind without oppression, without wars, without hatreds and petty fears, without, in the final analysis, the domination of one nation, race, group, or individual, over another nation, race, group, or individual. Skipping over the familiar passages, justifiably memorable for their honest eloquence (a trait absolutely foreign to Obama, his cunning, his teleprompter, his speechwriter Rhodes), I want to bring out the power of Dr. King’s uncompromising challenge to America, one that fifty years later perversely seems to have been met and won, yet, I believe not, however much we’ve seen the end of segregation and a black president in the White House.
Honesty clashes with smoke and mirrors, with propaganda, with deceit, as evidenced by having Obama make this address; for the acceptance of blacks in American life has been through the suspension, indeed, the surrender of the autonomy and critical reasoning among blacks themselves which so characterized the authentic striving for dignity and civil rights a half-century ago. Even John Lewis, an esteemed leader of SNCC, continues to honor Obama, despite the latter’s utter disregard not only of the black masses but also of all working people—a blasphemous presidential agenda promoting wealth accumulation among the groups already at the top, the corporate and banking elite through deregulation, as well as intervention by all means at hand from paramilitary operations and targeted assassination to naval forces in the Pacific confronting China and, of course, the recent war in Iraq and continuing one in Afghanistan.
That barely scratches the surface in this almost studied attempt to reverse, overturn, and extinguish the dream of Dr. King at the Lincoln Memorial. Listen: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
Whether one speaks of racial justice per se or as the precondition for universalized equality (“all of God’s children”), Obama’s policies which have resulted in staggering differences in wealth, large unemployment, the rape of the social safety net through massive military spending and, as we see in Egypt, military aid to dictators who repress their people, are not hopeful signs of the way to justice or equality. Neither is wanted, for both stand in the way of a political consciousness which rules out the slaughter of innocents, surveillance on an unprecedented scale, or cloaking government in extraordinary secrecy.
And further, the beauty of nonviolence, not only as a religious and moral principle, as significant as that is, but also, the steeling of courage to face down the oppressor, the militancy which eschews force and therefore repudiates the entrenched militarism which fuels expansion, intervention, war, and sets the tone for police brutality at home: “Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers as evidenced by their presence here today have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.”
A true biracial (or now multiracial) unity of spirit and action is precisely what is lacking, and precisely what is greatly feared, today because inceptively it carries with it a class component which, in turn, could lead to questioning the foundations of power in the United States and penetrate the fakery surrounding the administration’s decision-making, whether on humanitarian intervention, climate change, or the rule of law. An activated populace is the last thing wanted. Dr. King continued: “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways, and the hotels of the cities…. No, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
The stream has been reduced to a trickle, if even that, as drone strikes reign down on women and children, dissent becomes suspect, judicial decisions are tortured reasoning on behalf of powerful interests, and government becomes transmogrified into a war-machine partly for reasons of age-old hegemonic aspirations, partly to ensure the deterioration of living conditions at home, the better to keep the people docile, uncritical, accepting of the fate meted out to them. Dr. King went on to lead a Poor People’s Campaign, in order to actuate his dream; Obama, wholly disconnected from the lives and dreams of the poor, knows only capitalism as the god to be served.
When Dr. King goes on to say, “honor in suffering is redemptive,” Obama retreats to the Vineyard in puzzlement. For him, redemption comes from conquest, from looking the other way at—or actually facilitating–outrageous schemes for gathering wealth, and from successfully receding into the bowels of secretive government, where no Manning or Snowden is allowed to disrupt his vainglorious thoughts of consummate leadership. Dr. King wanted “to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
Obama reverses this, converting hope into despair for much of the world’s population, including those at home.
Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University. His new book, Eichmann on the Potomac, will be published by CounterPunch in the fall of 2013.