What Obama won’t say about Martin Luther King

Published: 28 August 2013

Dr Daniel Scroop, senior lecturer in contemporary citizenship, considers the implications of President Obama's speech on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech.

by Dr Danel Scroop, lecturer in contemporary citizenship

On August 28, 2013 President Obama will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He will go to the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC, he will stand where Martin Luther King Jr. stood in 1963—eighteen steps beneath the marble feet of the Great Emancipator—and he will conjure the memory of the 16-minute burst of brilliance we now call the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

It is of course fitting that Obama, a gifted orator, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the first African American US president, should be the man to honour King. Obama, as he made plain in his 2009 Nobel Lecture, is keenly aware of his debt to King. “As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence,” he said. Without King’s leadership, without the energy and persistence of the quarter of a million people who marched with him that day, and without the largely unheralded efforts of the many thousands more who toiled for the cause of civil rights in the troubled century that followed the Emancipation Proclamation, Obama’s path to the White House would surely have been barred.

'Obama’s speech will focus more on the iconic than on the historical King'

But Obama’s personal and historical connections to King do not necessarily make his task this Wednesday straightforward. In some ways they complicate it. When he takes up his position on the Lincoln Memorial, Obama will in symbolic terms be encouraging us to compare himself to King. These men, after all, are the two most important African American political figures since the end of the Second World War.

Obama is smart enough to understand, however, that he can only profit from this comparison by denying that he is worthy of it. This is what he did in Oslo when he picked up his Nobel gong: he described his own achievements as “slight” in contrast to those of such “giants of history” as Schweitzer, King, Marshall, and Mandela. This week Obama will do the same, knowing that he will be on safe ground so long as his remarks about King defer to his godlike status.

There is another reason why Obama’s speech will focus more on the iconic than on the historical King. If Obama were to reflect openly and honestly on the historical significance of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and its contemporary significance—something he is quite capable of doing well— he would force his audience to hear what they do not want to hear. He would have to expose the gaping chasm between the cherished image of King as a unifier whose dream healed a troubled nation’s wounds, and the complex, flawed, and vulnerable King of history.

Obama will not say, for example, that when King elaborated his dream, most Americans viewed him unfavourably. That would jar with the fanciful yet popular notion that the multiracial, multi-ethnic, and multi-faith March on Washington somehow represented the nation as a whole.

Nor will he say that in the few years that remained of his brief life—King was not yet 40 when he was murdered in Memphis in April 1968—he was widely denounced as a demagogue, that he was branded a traitor for his opposition to the Vietnam War, and falsely accused of being a communist by, among others, J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI. Obama will not say, either, that the writings of Karl Marx did inform King’s critical view of US consumer capitalism. In the current climate, such truths are unspeakable.

Nor will Obama dwell on how the behind-the-scenes story of King’s speech sheds light on the US federal government’s acute fear of dissent. To explain to Americans that President Kennedy did not want the march to go ahead, that his administration stood ready to pull the plug if speakers were deemed too radical, and that Hoover’s agents harassed King up to the moment of his death would be to play a dangerous game. It would invite us to reflect upon, and to ask more awkward questions about, the expansion of the national security state which has characterised the Bush-Obama years.

Finally, Obama will not use the anniversary of King’s speech to say more about the killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed African American teenager shot dead—a bag of skittles in one hand, a soft drink in the other—as he made his way home in February 2012. Nor will he return to the subject of George Zimmerman, the man who shot him dead. To do so would be to highlight the still-polarised character of American racial politics. It would shatter King’s dream.

45 years after his death, America, still shackled by the “chains of discrimination” is not yet ready for Martin Luther King.

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First published: 28 August 2013

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