King, Obama, and the Politics of Hope

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Mr. Honey is Haley Professor of the Humanities at the University of Washington, Tacoma, and author of Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (W.W. Norton). This is his keynote address of November 7, 2008, to the Ibero-American Virtual Conference on Human Rights, Catholic University of Campo Grande, Brazil, with participation of the University of Salamanca and the University of Madrid (Spain), and the University of Washington, Tacoma. It was followed by an exchange with Brazilian, Spanish, and other international scholars. 

At this summer’s Republican Convention, Sarah Palin and Rudy Guliana mocked Barack Obama: “community organizer -- What!!?” They didn’t get it then, but maybe they get it now. We have seen a beautiful model of organizing by the Obama campaign.

As an organizer in the downtrodden, gang-infested streets of the Black and Latino communities of South Side Chicago in the 1980s, Obama saw plant closings and disinvestment destroy lives and communities.

He couldn’t explain exactly what organizing meant. Instead, “I’d pronounce on the need for change…. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.” (Dreams From My Father, p. 133)

After experiencing the limitations of local organizing, he went on to law and politics to find greater leverage. He also tapped into Martin Luther King’s politics of hope. That combination has opened up the country to the possibility of new politics, and new goals.

Millions of people around the world, desperate to turn the page on the disastrous Bush era, had a huge stake in this Obama’s election. We all need to press for an end to government corruption, corporate profiteering, parasitical behavior by Wall Street, foreign policy run by bombs, wiretapping and torture. It’s time to reverse the course of the American Empire, along with its neglect of the world’s people and exploitation of its resources.

The world experienced a justifiable crisis of confidence in U.S. capitalism. President Lula of Brazil put it well when he expressed outrage that those who propagated the neo-liberal policies of belt tightening and social disinvestment on the developing world never followed those standards themselves.

It seems that finally the majority of U.S. voters have recognized the full dimensions of the crisis and folly that the Bush regime ushered in.

So today, with Barack Obama as the American President, we must ask, as King asked in 1968, “where do we go from here?” King answered his own question by organizing a Poor People’s Campaign to demand that government address the historic racial inequalities created by slavery and segregation. And he joined a strike of the poorest of the poor, black sanitation workers in Memphis. King in 1968 became a shining advocate for economic justice.

In Memphis, King left a legacy of joining labor and civil rights organizing to gain union rights. King also sought bigger goals: redistribution of wealth and power, an end to racism and war, a “moral revolution.” He wrote, “we must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.”

Obama doesn’t promise as big a leap. He is a reformer, interested in finding pragmatic solutions to pressing problems. But, like King, he promises an alternative to war. And, like King, he envisions a program to deal with racial inequality by reaching beyond race to address problems facing all working people.

“What would help minority workers are the same things that would help white workers: the opportunity to earn a living wage, the education and training that can lead to such jobs, labor laws and tax laws that restore some balance to the distribution of the nation’s wealth, and health-care, child care, and retirement systems that working people can count on.” (The Audacity of Hope, p. 246)

Many Americans think that sounds pretty good. John McCain, in response, called Obama a socialist who wants to turn the tax system into a welfare program.

People throughout the world strive to put a human face on capitalism, while America has become what King warned against: a country where “machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people.” It is indeed time for a change.

With our economy and government practically in ruins, Democrats will be hard pressed to address our economic disaster. We did it under worse times in the 1930s, and we can do it again today. We will be pressing for a new law restoring the right of workers, without fear of being fired, to organize unions, which remain the best “anti-poverty program” around, as King put it.

“Hope is that thing inside of us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that there is something greater inside of us,” Obama said after winning the Iowa primary.  Since then, his campaign has proven that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when organized together.

Bringing about significant change won’t be easy, but his dramatic and joyful election victory affirmed the power of organizing. In my hometown of Tacoma, Washington, I witnessed the unique vibrancy of the Obama campaign. I have never seen more involved, energized people, working so hard in an election campaign. And it happened almost everywhere.

The movement that elected Obama now needs to keep moving. A President Obama will need us to both support him and to push to fulfill our hopes and his promises.

We now need to take the next steps to make real the promise of a revitalized democracy. That won’t happen without mass citizen involvement. As King would tell us, we still need to organize.

To even take incremental steps out of the wilderness created by Bush’s disastrous regime, people at the grass roots must build a mighty movement. And to sustain the politics of hope we need to dream of a different kind of country.

The danger now is that the Democrats may move so far to “bi-partisanship” with Republicans, who oppose every major tenant of social reform, that we can’t get the things that we need out of this historical moment. That is not the model we need.

It is a good time to think big, as King did. Real change requires a continuing movement from the bottom up to transcend privileged and entrenched power in both parties. It requires a political commitment to stop our downward cycle into militarism and war; to overcome religious and ethnic hatred and division; and to enhance human needs and human rights.

That would be a politics of hope worthy of the American promise to insure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. It would be a politics of hope worthy of Senator Obama’s heartening rhetoric. It would be a politics worthy of Martin Luther King’s legacy of struggle for a better world and the creation of a beloved community.

Across our national borders, let’s all try to stay connected and try to stay active. Colleagues, and brothers and sisters, let’s keep hope alive!

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Euribiades Cerrud II, Esq. - 11/22/2008

As written February 18, 2008 and celebrated November 4, 2008.

The healing of this nation may be held in the trust which was once granted to the common man. To hold steadfast to the principle that all men are created equal such that no man shall rule by the color of his skin or the purse that he may hold; instead, that the measure of that trust be one that his efforts and character forge in weight amongst his peers. The healing of this nation may be held in the once prevalent standard that this is a government by the people and for the people such that the transparency in the halls of justice and the execution of sound resolutions of this great nation's elected officials rise in hope for all to embrace. And so, this hope brings forth much needed change. The message by Barack Obama.

The true essence of this land of opportunity is that which thrives in the hopes of the impossible, the adaptability of judgment to accept the truth, and the evolution of that far cry of fairness from oppression by the elite. This land of opportunity casts before it the possibility that descendants of slaves uprooted from their homeland and rejects exiled by despotism from our ancestral nations may prosper to become the leaders of that world which once kept them in the misery of their shadow. This land of opportunity beckons that maturity which seeks beyond the obvious - to choose with the modesty our forefathers acknowledged, and showing, that they were not wisemen but that in the unity and tolerance of the multitude of principles enshrined in the union of the peoples of our states - there must be hope.

Hope; so much as though this great nation seeks it - so many other countries see this nation as a symbol of hope. It is hope that shall heal this country, for it brings about the strength necessary to carry about change - the message by Barack Obama.

Hope and need is what drove our forefathers to kiln the miracle of our nation against seemingly insurmountable odds - a concept only known as opportunity. And so, upon the election of Barack Obama, let this great nation be known not as the land of opportunity but as the land of hope that it no longer be the mirage of an ideal but the common reality of our way of living. It is all we need; it is what we have misplaced.

It is the misplacement of hope that leads to the destitution and despair we see in our morale and our economy this day. It is the misplacement of hope that lessens our care for nature and the environment thinking there is nothing to save for future generations. It is the misplacement of hope that make us think about today without regard for tomorrow. It is the misplacement of hope that has made us believe that we have all there is to be had and that there is no need for hope.

And so, it is today that we need hope the most. It is today that we need a chance to rise once again. It is today that we need opportunity once more.

It is today that we return what was once lost to the people only eight years ago - its government.

It is today that we bring about change in that same spirit which saw that great American eagle rise onto a gleaming sky with a cadre of arrows of strength in one claw and branches of hope in the other - that it may impart with justice hope for all Americans.

It is today that we bring about the healing of our nation from financial disrepair, feelings of helplessness, abuse, racism, hate and greed.

It is today that once more we rise to the occasion to show the world that this is the land of opportunity where the impossible is made reality - that we stand once more as an underdog only to ourselves believing in the strength of our people and the spirit of our forefathers such that those who, without question or understanding, resolved in the discharge of their duties, face the end of their days so that other Americans may have better ones, that liberty may be had, and the American dream prevail.

It is this day that we stand behind he who has faced all odds and lights the way rejoicing in the challenge to bring about the much needed change and chants YES WE CAN! YES WE CAN! YES WE CAN!

It is today that we elect as our President, a great man, a symbol of hope - future be foretold - that America is truly the land of the free and the home of the brave.

It is today that we elect as our President, Barack Obama.

Arnold Shcherban - 11/18/2008

The overwhelming majority of the US Democratic Party is too heavily invested in corporate money in its public policies and individually to strive for the changes the author of this article is talking about.
Not already mentioning the Republicans who openly oppose such changes.
This country desperately needs not just a bold Presidential character, but most of all the third party, having wide social support, which is not corrupted (or much less so) by the corporate capital.
Only then the author's hopes might be realized.