What Would Martin Luther King Jr. Say to President Obama?
By John Lewis
August 26, 2011
Forty-eight years ago Sunday, when Martin Luther King
Jr. was about to make his historic speech on the
National Mall, I was huddled close to the statue of
Abraham Lincoln, tapping on a portable typewriter,
making last-minute changes to my own speech. As the
newly elected chair of the Student Non-violent
Coordinating Committee, speaking at the March on
King spoke tenth; I was sixth. Today, I am the last
surviving speaker from the march.
When I think back on that day, and the hundreds of
thousands of people who responded to the call to march
have changed. Then, Martin Luther King Jr. was a
controversial figure taking risks so that his voice
might be heard. Today, the mere mention of his speech -
and its powerful "I have a dream" refrain - evokes hope
for the future, stirring memories of the past and
mandates for change, but the context in which Dr. King
delivered those words was quite different.
In April of 1963, just a few months before the march,
he had written his now famous "Letter from
Jail," advocating the moral imperative of non-violent
protest by faith leaders. In May, the Commissioner of
Public Safety in
used police dogs and fire hoses on children engaged in
peaceful protest in the city. And in June, civil
rights activist Medgar Evers was killed by a member of
the Ku Klux Klan outside of Evers's home near Jackson, Miss.
The March on
labor leaders, civil rights organizations and faith
groups united in their call for governments and members
of civilized society to defend human dignity,
especially at a time when that dignity was under siege.
We have come a long way since then. If Martin Luther
King Jr. were here today, he would take heart in the
fact that the vestiges of legalized segregation are
gone. He would be amazed that a likeness of him had
been placed on the National Mall. And he would be
gratified that the
Yes, we have come a great distance - but we still have
a great distance to go. King's speech was a cogent
statement about the need for civil rights, but its
deepest purpose was about much more. His dream was
about more than racial justice, though racism often
represents the greatest moral stain on our society. His
dream was about building a society based on simple
justice that values the dignity and the worth of every
That effort is the true legacy of King's dream. Were he
alive today, it is telling that his message would still
be essentially the same. It is troubling that
unemployment is so high - indeed, far higher than it
was in 1963 - and that we are so caught up in details
of deficits and debt ceilings that we question whether
government has any moral duty to serve the poor, help
feed the hungry and assist the sick. Today, Dr. King
would still be asking questions that reveal the moral
meaning of our policies. And he would still challenge
our leaders to answer those questions - and to act on
Among those leaders, I know he would take a special
interest in President Obama - not only because he is
the first African-American to sit in the Oval Office,
but because Dr. King recognized the power of one man to
transform a nation. He would say that the president has
the capacity to unify
one people, one family, one house. He would say that a
leader has the ability to inspire people to greatness,
but that to do so he must be daring, courageous and
unafraid to demonstrate what he is made of.
As a minister, never elected to any public office, Dr.
King would tell this young leader that it is his moral
obligation to use his power and influence to help those
who have been left out and left behind. He would
encourage him to get out of
from handlers and advisers and go visit the people
where they live. He would urge him to meet the coal
working poor in our large urban centers, juggling
mutiple jobs to try to make ends meet; to go to the
barrios of the Southwest; and to visit native Americans
on their reservations. He would urge Obama to feel the
hurt and pain of those without work, of mothers and
their children who go to bed hungry at night, of the
families living in shelters after losing their homes,
and of the elderly who chose between buying medicine
and paying the rent.
Dr. King would say that a Nobel Peace Prize winner can
and must find a way to demonstrate that he is a man of
peace, a man of love and non-violence. He would say it
is time to bring an end to war and get our young men
and women out of harm's way. Dr. King would assert
without hesi-ta-tion that war is obsolete, that it
destroys the very soul of a nation, that it wastes
human lives and natural resources.
A. Philip Randolph, the dean of the civil rights
movement and the convener of the March on
once advocated creating what he called a "freedom
budget" that would be a collection point for the
resources government would use to help create jobs,
rebuild infrastructure, clean up the waterways and make
sure we have clean air to breathe and nutritious food
to eat. I think Dr. King would ask why we couldn't do
something like this today.
He would say that Obama's election represents a
significant step toward laying down the burden of race,
but that this task is not yet complete. The election of
2008 was a major down payment on Dr. King's dream, but
it did not fulfill it. When one member of Congress
calls the president a "tar baby" on a radio show and
when another cries out "You lie!" during a State of the
Union address, it is more than clear that we still do
not understand the need to respect human dignity
despite our differences.
Dr. King would tell this young president to do what he
can to end discrimination based on race, color,
religious faith and sexual orientation. He would say
that righteous work makes its own way. There is no need
to put a finger in the air to see which way the wind is
blowing. There is no need to match each step to the
latest opinion poll. The people of this country
recognize when a leader is trying to do what is right.
Take a stand, he would say. Go with your gut. Let the
people of this country see that you are fighting for
them and they will have your back.
There will be opposition, and it might become ugly. Dr.
King faced frequent threats on his life and the bombing
of his home, and he and his family were in constant
danger. He had no protection beyond his faith. But he
believed in the power of the truth to expose what is
arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward
justice." And the reason it does is because of the
central goodness of humankind.
Martin Luther King Jr. believed that once people heard
the truth, their tendency to bend toward what is right
would pave the way for goodness to prevail. And it still can.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) has been a member of the House
of Representatives since 1987.