What Would King Tell Obama?

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Mr. Honey is author of Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (W.W. Norton), Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington, Tacoma, and President of the Working Class History Association (LAWCHA).

What would Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrate on January ninetenth, say to Barack Obama, inaugurated as President of the United States on January twentieth? A friend of mine is judging student essays on that question for the King Holiday. It’s a good question, with possibly some surprising answers.

King thought in terms of progressive phases of history. He saw “phase one” of the American freedom movement as the struggle for legal integration, equal opportunity, and full voting rights. He saw “phase two” as a struggle for economic justice. “Something is wrong with capitalism as it now stands in the United States,” he said. It “takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”

In phase two, King sought remedies for capitalism’s defects. He launched his Poor People’s Campaign demanding that government divert funds being spent for war to education, housing, and jobs. King also went to Memphis to support a strike of sanitation workers for the right to have a union. King, saying “all labor has dignity,” supported unionization as a portal to a decent life.

In phase two, King also vigorously challenged America’s militarist foreign policy. He saw the slaughter of millions in Indochina and regretfully condemned his country as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Guns and bombs would never create security for anyone; violent means would only produce violent ends.

Today, King would urge Obama to continue building a broad consensus for change, to pass new labor laws to help workers organize unions, to gain health care for all, and to put America back to work. He would support Obama’s pledge to restore civil liberties and the rule of law, after the travesty of the Bush years, and to use diplomacy to bring peace. Like Obama, King sought tangible gains for people, not pie in the sky.

But King would go further. He wanted a new kind of society based on love and justice. He wanted America to undertake a “moral revolution” to replace self-seeking individualism with concern for the common good. He said racism, poverty and war are intertwined problems that can only be resolved together.

King wanted a larger agenda and a better kind of world. To put America to work, to overcome systemic racial and other forms of inequality, to study war no more: that agenda would constitute a politics of hope worthy of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Vernon Clayson - 1/19/2009

I don't think he'd tell him much, maybe to avoid balconies, but the world is much different now and MLK endured more in his brief life than Obama ever will. He also became more influential in death than in life, his message was great for his time but he would be passe in today's American Idol, People Magazine, society.

Vernon Clayson - 1/19/2009

Mr. Schnapp, you are in over your head on this site so take your bias and hatred to sites that aren't seeking intellectual discourse.

pete alan schnapp - 1/18/2009

I feel the very FIRST thing he would tell him would be to instantly remove his nose from AIPAC's ass before he suffocates.
I have a very uneasy feeling it's going to be Zionist actions as usual with Mr. Obama.
In fact, should we lose just a small percentage more of our "leaders" to Zionist Israel it might be safe to say we'll soon have a new flag waving over the country for the United States of Israel.
Followed by the filling of Haliburtons "detention" centers with the sheeple of the old USA filling the cells.