Four years ago, if you were a particularly hokey newspaper columnist with a deadline, you might have remarked upon the symmetry of Martin Luther King Day being so close to Barack Obama’s inauguration. “King’s Dream isn’t totally fulfilled, but surely we are a step closer thanks to the image of Obama, a black man born to a white woman, standing at the heart of our nation’s capital and being sworn in as President of the United States,” you could have written, and so on and so on until you had 750 words and could take the rest of the day off.
And four years ago, it was probably OK to feel a little hokey about Obama. As it turned out, he didn’t usher in a new age of liberalism and tolerance and bipartisanship in America—it was pretty stupid, in hindsight, to expect him to do so—but his specific actions as president shouldn’t take away from the powerful symbolism of a black man becoming president. I remember the night of the election, when the streets of Brooklyn flooded with people yelling and hugging and high-fiving each other and it felt appropriate, for once, to not be cynical about the future. If you didn’t get a little bit pumped up while listening to Young Jeezy yell-sing, “My president is black,” you were probably one of those people who were already busy writing blog posts titled, “Obama the New Hitler? No Gun Control Socialism Kenya Obama Not in My Name!”
If you’re still feeling warm and fuzzy about our president four years into his term, you’ve been living in a very different world than I have. Obama turned out to be a politician constrained by all sorts of circumstances beyond his control, and not particularly determined to fundamentally change America—in other words, he’s like every president to ever hold office. You can’t run a country as large and complex and militarized as the United States without cutting at least a few ethical and moral corners. I think it’s worth asking if you can be a US president in 2013 without doing at least a few things that might be called evil, or at least picking between two evil alternatives. (Should Obama bomb Syria, causing the deaths of thousands, or live with the knowledge that people are dying every day and he has the power to intervene?) Which is to say that someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. could never be president.
When I was in school, we learned about MLK in some of the vaguest possible terms. “I Have a Dream,” the Montgomery Bus Boycott, his refusal to embrace the violent tactics of Malcolm X and others—he was a saint in soft focus, one of those vague Good Guys we were told about like Abraham Lincoln or George Washington. I hope that is changing a little bit, because summarizing King as the “I Have a Dream” guy ignores his radicalism, which would have gotten him in trouble even today. In some of his later speeches it’s especially clear that his vision went far beyond ending segregation. In “Beyond Vietnam,” from April 4, 1967, he spoke against the major war of his era, and reading that speech today you can wonder, if you like, what he would have thought of the war in Afghanistan, or of the drone strikes that Obama routinely orders, or the prison in Guantanamo he still—still—hasn’t closed:
"Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition."
For an even better example of the views that would be denounced by a lot of commentators today, turn to “Where Do We Go From Here,” a speech King made on August 16, 1967, about seven months before he died. There he spoke not about the most open forms of discrimination but about economic inequality:
“Half of all Negroes live in substandard housing. And Negroes have half the income of whites… There are twice as many unemployed… In elementary schools, Negroes lag one to three years behind whites, and their segregated schools receive substantially less money per student than the white schools. One twentieth as many Negroes as whites attend college. Of employed Negroes, 75 percent hold menial jobs.”
Those numbers have changed, but the problem hasn’t—black people are still, on average, poorer and less educated than whites. And MLK’s proposed solution is familiar too: “We must develop a program that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income,” he said. Then, as now, that was an alarming notion to a lot of people; it’s no surprise that the FBI blackmailed and hounded King until the day he died.
Maybe you disagree with King’s socialism, but his diagnosis of economic inequality and war being at the root of America’s problems is pretty undeniable, as is their continued existence. The president being black—or a woman, or gay, or even an atheist—won’t reverse the injustices King spoke against.
This isn’t to upbraid Obama for not measuring up to MLK’s standards, since anyone who did follow King’s teachings word-for-word would be unelectable. But let’s remember that Obama was up on that stage today being sworn in not just because of the successes of those idealistic civil rights campaigners of the 60s, but because he was willing to ditch their idealism for the sake of realpolitik and electability. King had a dream; Obama and the rest of us are stuck with reality.