Saturday, August 27, 2011

What Would King Say to Obama?

What Would Martin Luther King Jr. Say to President Obama?


By John Lewis

Washington Post

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

Washington was one of my first important actions. Dr.

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

on Washington, there is no question that many things

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 Birmingham

Jail," advocating the moral imperative of non-violent

protest by faith leaders.  In May, the Commissioner of

Public Safety in BirminghamEugene "Bull" Connor, had

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 Washington represented a coalition of

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 United States had elected its first

African-American president.


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

human being.


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

their beliefs.


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 America, to bring us together as

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 Washington, to break away

from handlers and advisers and go visit the people

where they live. He would urge him to meet the coal

miners of West Virginia; to shake the hands of the

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 Washington,

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

wrong in America. He often quoted the notion that "the

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.


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