As we celebrate the 80th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday today, it comes on the eve of the inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States. Every year, scholars of the civil rights movement decry the simplification of King’s politics into a soundbite from his “I Have a Dream Speech.” This year, there exists the new dynamic of simplification in which the media would like to reduce and conflate Martin Luther King Jr’s dream with Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency. Of course, the oval office will be desegregated from the historical vestiges of its obscene exclusivity of white privilege tomorrow and that could not have happened without the movement King helped lead. Tomorrow’s inauguration, thus, should be given its full due with that in mind. However, today’s holiday, must be given its full due as well. Martin Luther King Jr. was a proponent of racial desegregation, but for him, the process wasn’t to be divorced from the ‘revolution of values,’ that rightly accompanied it.
As such, if we are to assess Obama’s stated policy positions against the rubric of King’s revolution of values, we must understand that the great reverend’s question “How long?” still applies. The answer to King’s rhetorical question will be “not long,” if we keep the spirit of the struggle for his vision alive beyond January 20th, 2009. Indeed, Obama will need to be reminded that King’s revolution of values included his statement saying, “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro…” King used a singular noun as representative of the people. Tomorrow does not ‘cash the promissory note’ as the people, must get to the promised land of justice and not just the oval office. Indeed, King’s statement is to the left of Obama’s notion of racial uplift by default of his general policies. No, this society must do something special, something more.
Lastly, for Presidents, the oval office has sometimes been the seat of an interesting paradox. For progressive evaluators, the domestic presidential policies of measured populism – whether it be Teddy Roosevelt’s monopoly busting or LBJ’s Great society – have always been mired by the consistency of the imperial throne. That is most certainly the case of Roosevelt’s racist wars as well as LBJ’s wanton killing campaign in Vietnam. King’s revolution of values did not suffer from this paradox and understood that domestic and foreign policy were intertwined. For him there existed a triple evil of militarism, racism and economic exploitation that were interrelated.
Will the Obama presidency suffer from the expectations of the imperial throne? Will its parameters bind him to the triple evils? In the most challenging aspect of King’s revolution of values, the reverend said a year before his death that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” As Paul Street has noted, a report by Morgan Stanley after Obama’s electoral victory stated “As we understand it, Obama has been advised and agrees that there is no peace dividend. In addition, we believe, based on discussions with industry sources, that Obama has agreed not to cut the defense budget at least until the first 18 months of his term as the national security situation becomes better understood.” Of course, a cut that would only be considered after another year and a half of spiritual death would have to set a significant precedent if it in any way attempts to be aligned with King’s vision of reversing our ‘perverted national priorities.” Translation: Don’t hold your breath.
King was a prophetic social movement leader emboldened by his Christian religious sensibilities. Tomorrow, Obama will assume the office that has been occupied by Constantinian Christians carrying out the tasks of empire. The contradictions between King and Obama must not be obfuscated. They will arise. Will a movement, steeped in the lessons of King’s revolution of values, also arise? How long? Not long!