President Obama checked the box labeled "Black, African Am., or Negro" on his ten-question Census form which made it official: He is the nation's first African-American president. "There is currently no provision for listing multiple ethnicities" was the explanation, although I recall that the instructions said to mark everything appropriate. I'm sure that his great-uncle, Charles T. Payne — who was one of the first American soldiers to enter Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of Buchenwald — will understand his great-nephew's dilemma. He's too busy being President to read the instructions too closely after all.
Certainly Obama's declaring his ethnicity as Black at a time when overt racism and related violence appears to be breaking out across this nation is a sign of courage. At no time in recent history have so many death threats been leveled at a sitting President. But considering how often Obama has betrayed his supporters, rebuffing them so much that even Democrats who voted for him are now aligning with the Tea Baggers, one has to question just how deep Obama's bravery goes.
Obama reportedly read up about Abraham Lincoln during his early days in office. That Lincoln was a brave man with principles he wouldn't alter for convenience should be beyond dispute (despite the desire of the Texas Board of Education to rewrite history in their image of Godliness). Considering that Obama has now publicly identified himself as African-American, perhaps he instead should have been reading Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as his sources of inspiration, for while he has no known ancestors who were slaves, the vast majority of American Blacks do.
"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. — Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love
Dr. King conspicuously stood for human rights throughout his public career in the face of white supremacist challenge, and feared not the consequences of his audacity to incite controversy in his quest to realize through non-violent protest the promise of the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed "all men are created equal". Dr. King cited the noted historian, C. Vann Woodward, whose book The Strange Career of Jim Crow exposed the purpose behind segregation, which involved setting poor whites against even poorer blacks to fight over what crumbs the Southern economic elites disdainfully tossed at them.
Dr. King often expressed in his speeches that the inclusion of black people in the society of America was preferred to separation and segregation. In his March 25, 1965 speech given in Montgomery, AL, he expressed his gratitude to white Americans who openly rejected the traditional segregation of the South and who assisted "our triumphant march to the realization of the American dream." Even while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King expressed a belief in mankind to eventually "overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression."
But the longer the struggle went on, the more worried he became that it wouldn't come about any time soon. Dr. King had attempted to warn that, without redress of their grievances, the black community would "out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black-nationalist ideologies…that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare" while still calling for peaceful non-violence in actions against "unjust law." Yet these strong words, spoken in the face of a society that had murdered so many seeking the realization of civil rights and racial equality, did not cause King's death. A weaker man, such as Obama, might have capitulated under the pressure and attempted to reach some kind of an accommodation in which the very first thing surrendered would be the one thing that might have driven the process to a better conclusion. But Dr. King didn't cringe in the face of mortal threats for his words and actions. He carried on in spite of them. As former King aide Andrew Young later wrote, "He always knew some speech would be his last. Was he afraid? Not on your life!"
I remember hearing Dr. King's speech given at Riverside Church in New York City exactly one year before he was assassinated. I heard him condemn the Vietnam War, an act for which many then called for his demise in a manner being repeated today against Obama. Dr. King called the war "an enemy of the poor" which "continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube." It was his first expression indicating that he was losing hope in the America he so staunchly wanted to lead his people into being a part. I felt sure then that his death would only a matter of time.
But even denouncing the war and putting himself in the line of fire of hawkish "patriots" who only live through vicarious contests of death and destruction wasn't itself enough to cause his demise. It took something much more important than the avoidance and denunciation of false patriotism to bring this about.
It took a condemnation of the white-controlled economy to cause someone to order the hit.
In his final speech, Dr. King provided the necessary excuse for his assassination. He finally broke with his long-stated belief that peaceful and non-violent reason would win out in the end. Dr. King had to have felt strongly about this lost innocence, for he spoke without prepared notes (see David J. Garrow's Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Carson, Shepard, and Young).
In his final address, buried in the middle of his delivery, Dr. King challenged his listeners to know their power even in their deprivation, stating that "collectively we are richer than all the nations in the world, with the exception of nine" in spite of their poverty. Such power was to be wielded in the cause of achieving civil rights. As he demanded of his audience just prior to making this statement, he issued his own death warrant: "Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal."
Dr. King was through rendering unto a Caesar which rendered little in return. He was calling for purchasing strikes against some of the largest corporations in America, citing Coca-Cola, Sealtest, Wonder, and Hart's by name as targets of economic boycott. He called for black money to be withdrawn from "downtown" banks to be deposited in black-owned institutions. He called for the transference of insurance coverage from the large national firms to the "six or seven black insurance companies in the city of Memphis".
But even in denouncing continued participation in white-controlled economics, Dr. King still chose to acknowledge a bond with whites. He cited a letter he received from a ninth grade white girl attending White Plains High School in New York. This girl was thankful that a medical condition Dr. King was suffering due to a failed 1958 assassination attempt did not kill him. Dr. King deemed this letter as more memorable than a message from the sitting Governor of New York received about the same time.
From his closing statements, it's clear to me that he knew that his end was at hand. Maybe that is why he chose to stand up for what he thought was right for the nation by threatening it with economic upheaval. Or maybe in so standing, he knew that there would be a dear price for him to pay. And if it achieved something toward realizing his goal, he must have considered that cost fair and just. Or so his words imply.
I cannot say with certainty that Dr. King's sacrifice was a direct cause of the improvement of our imperfect racial relations and unbalanced realization of opportunity. But there has been movement toward that goal. While there are still problems regarding race-based poverty, it isn't as iron-clad a condition as it once was. Thanks to the movement which produced the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, there has been — up to Obama's abandonment of the entire set — a growing non-white middle-class. Without that previously growing non-white middle-class, President McCain would by now be utilizing the Twenty-fifth Amendment to replace Governor Quitter, who would likely have decided by now that the graft is a lot greener where the FOXes rule the roost.
But even with that potentially growing non-white middle-class, there is no guaranty that Barack Obama will maintain their support. One can only spit in non-violent faces so often before the other cheek is offered no more. November is coming, and there will be political blood for both parties. The Tea Baggers threaten the Republicans with changes they aren't going to like, and the same is coming to the Democrats from their disappointed supporters. I expect that the majority of these changes will occur through primary challenges to the incumbents of both parties. Even if the incumbents win their primaries, they risk being weakened enough for the other party to win the seats.
The American people are fed up with the status quo. They are reaching their Howard Beale moment. No one can predict with certainly what will come of this, except to note that the best laid plans of mousy political men gang aft agley. Obama would be wise to heed this sage advice.
Dr. King would have understood the situation. As he said in a speech in Detroit on June 23, 1963: "I submit to you that if a man hasn't discovered something he will die for, he isn't fit to live." Or to be President.