Tom Palaima: MLK, Barack Obama and our hope for racial justice

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Tom Palaima is a classics professor who teaches war and violence studies and Emily Schenk is a senior in the School of Social Work, both at University of Teas at Austin.]

If the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came back to witness Barack Obama's inauguration, would he think that the people he led in peaceful pursuit of social justice had reached the promised land of racial equality? What could be more barrier-shattering in his eyes than our electing an African American president?

King's answer is found in his essay "A Testament of Hope," which appeared posthumously 40 years ago this month in Playboy magazine. Like putting a man in orbit on the way to putting men on the moon, shattering a barrier is just a first step. The rest is the hardest part.

The promised land will be reached, as King saw it, when economic, social and educational barriers no longer make the darkest color of the American rainbow an unexpected sight in the United States Senate, the White House, executive boardrooms and head coaches' offices.

Barack Obama's big step in becoming only the third African American U.S. senator in 125 years has been overshadowed by his giant leap to become the first black president. But the co-founder of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Rush, was the main voice speaking out for Roland Burris to be confirmed in the seat Obama vacated. And it took a governor under federal indictment and facing an impeachment trial to ensure we still have an African American in the U.S. Senate.

If King were alive, he would call on us to celebrate Obama's inauguration. Obama's calls for hope and unity across political and racial divisions echo King's. Obama, too, urges us to see how we all will benefit by achieving racial equality. But to lead us there, he must make us heed the message of "A Testament of Hope."

King knew the challenges we face. He lived and died trying to overcome them: "White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. Inferior education, poor housing, unemployment, inadequate health care - each is a bitter component of the oppression that has been our (i.e., the African-American) heritage. Each will require billions of dollars to correct. This fact has not been grasped, because most of the gains of the past decade (the 1960s) were obtained at bargain prices. The desegregation of public facilities cost nothing; neither did the election and appointment of a few black public officials."

King spoke about justice. The politicized appointments within the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice during the Bush presidency are no small matter. They corrupt the nation's ultimate instrument for racial justice. Texas State Sen. Royce West explained how this played out in the discriminatory redistricting under Tom DeLay in 2003: "Political appointees at the Department of Justice conspired to commit a political crime that denied voting rights to African Americans and Hispanics in Texas."

Worse still, many young African Americans do not have any political voice.

When King was alive, there were 100 prisoners for every 100,000 Americans. Now there are 472. Most prisoners and ex-offenders lose their right to vote and to live with their families in public housing.

Poverty is a key factor. The average offender has yearly earnings between $1,000 and $2,000. Those are not typos. The poverty and unemployment rates and impoverished school systems in northern rust-belt cities eradicate hope. Many black youths view going to prison as a natural step in their lives. Twenty-two percent of black men in birth cohorts in recent years have prison records. Only 12 percent have college degrees. Recidivism rates are high because of repeat-offender, mandatory-sentencing and drug laws. Budgets to help ex-prisoners re-enter society are low.

The words of singer Michael Franti capture the understandable anger and frustration about these conditions: "For just about anything they can bust us / false advertising sayin' "Halls of Justice....Mandatory minimum sentencin' / 'cause he got caught with a pocket full of medicine. / Do that again / another ten / up in the pen. / I feel so mad I wanna bomb an institution."

The hope and energy that King inspired in the late 60's has long since dissipated. Studs Terkel's magnificent oral history Race made clear in 1992, at the mid-point between the end of MLK's work and the beginning of Barack Obama's as our 44th president, that the policies of Reagan and George H.W. Bush put an end to whatever was left of Johnson's Great Society initiatives. As sociology professor Douglas Massey then put it, public investment in and commitment to civil rights had disappeared.

As inner cities have deteriorated and trickle-down economics have prevailed for almost three decades since Reagan took office, the divide between rich and poor has become a Grand Canyon. The haves have supported larger police forces, prisons, mandatory sentencing measures. They have also resorted to private solutions: security systems and most conspicuously in the last two decades: the gated community.

We should not forget how Ronald Reagan again and again and again told his false story of the "Chicago welfare queen" who had 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards, and collected benefits of "over $150,000" for "four nonexisting deceased husbands," to push his views on the need to shrink big government. George H.W. Bush used his fear-mongering Willie Horton ads to get elected. Bill Clinton then upped the race-card ante by scheduling and overseeing the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a brain-damaged mentally ill African-American, right before the 1992 New Hampshire primary. His cynical use of Rector's execution for political capital raised an outcry from the Southern Center for Human Rights, which saw it as the latest stage in reprehensible political exploitation of the minority crime problem. The last sixteen years have seen a further separation in our society between haves and have-nots and no diminution of latent racial fears.

Martin Luther King showed us a peaceful path to the promised land. But we cannot walk it together if a perceptive African-American singer with a degree from University of San Francisco can write and sing justifiably a prayer song: "Oh my, oh my God / in my mind they got us livin' suicide / singin' oh my, oh my God / in my mind they got us livin' genocide," while African-Americans in his audience know exactly what he is singing about, and suburban or comfortably urban white Americans can see it for themselves on television.

HBO's long-running series about drug trafficking, violent crime and political corruption in inner-city Baltimore, The Wire, used Franti's "Oh, My God" in its soundtrack. Conditions against which King would have organized marches many of us now watch on cable in the safety of our homes as reassurance that the violence will never touch us physically or morally.

Read entire article at This is an expanded version of an article that first appeared in the Austin American-Statesman

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Charles Lee Geshekter - 1/26/2009

In his inaugural address, Obama referred to the need for personal responsibility on the part of all Americans in terms of behavior and obeying the law, and that was without regard for skin color or ethnicity.

In their article here, Palaima and Schenk seem inadvertently to have omitted such pertinent reminders. Perhaps in later versions they will remember to include such material and show how it relates to family bonds, two-parent households, doing homework, avoiding psychoactive street drugs, upholding the law, and the like.

For more superb ideas, see the book by Elijah Anderson, *Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City" (1999)

Douglas Hainline - 1/25/2009

Young Black men are poor, and in prison, not because of "the system," or "white racism," but because of their own behavior.

If these young men would behave like Vietnamese, or Jews, or Arabs or people from the Indian sub-continent, they would flourish. They don't, so they remain poor. And liberals help keep them that way by telling them "It's all the White Man's fault."