On August 28th, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his best remembered speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He demanded an end to racism in the United States. He declared, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Over 250,000 civil rights activists cheered at the declaration, and the world soon followed.
Fifty years later, Barack Obama, our nation’s first black president, will echo King’s remarks. Wednesday afternoon, President Obama will be at Lincoln’s feet, making comments on the state of race in America. The pressure will undoubtedly be high; as a great orator himself, Barack Obama will have to try to match one of the greatest American speeches of all time. What will be more difficult to overcome, however, is Obama’s inability to be the “great uniter” as Martin Luther King Jr. once was.
Since Obama became president, racial tensions have only been exacerbated. If one chose not to vote for Obama, they were labeled as racist. As the tumultuous economy continued to worry voters, Obama stated that, resultantly, “racial tensions won’t get better; they may get worse.” Most famously, after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed, Obama said, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” and, “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son.”
There is substance to some of Obama’s claims here; there is no doubt that race and class continue to intertwine in “post-racial” America. Hate crimes continue to occur. But I have to ask, how much is Obama really applying Martin Luther King’s vision?
How much is he judging these groups by the content of their character?
There continues to be a jaw-dropping dissonance amongst the fight for black empowerment today. Instead of following through on Martin Luther King’s vision of black individualism, there has been a storm of rhetoric pushing victimization and helplessness. These strategies could not possibly embolden the black community.
Having a black president has not made racial tensions any easier in America. The country should stop pretending as if this is the case.
There is little debate as to whether or not race continues to be an issue in America today. It is. It affects millions of people every day, and because that is the case identity politics are still important. But Barack Obama’s administration has done little to solve the problem of racism (indeed, I do not believe they have the power to do so); it has, instead, exacerbated racial bigotry. The administration uses racism as a national divider. Black empowerment is no longer a talking point, but hyperbolic victimhood is.
That was never Martin Luther King’s dream.
When President Obama takes the stage on Wednesday, I hope he talks about the enormous gains the black community has made in the past fifty years. I hope that he highlights how the drug war, inner-city schools, and welfare are unduly holding back people of color. I hope that President Obama reverberates his own words at Morehouse College, an historically black college, when he said,
We have individual responsibilities. There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves. There are some things, as Morehouse Men, that you are obliged to do for those still left behind. As Morehouse Men, you now wield something even more powerful than the diploma you’re about to collect — and that’s the power of your example.
Leading by example is why MLK was so powerful as one of America’s greatest catalysts for change. When Barack Obama takes the stage, he should take that to heart. It is time for his rhetoric to start working for the black community, instead of creating further division.
As Martin Luther King said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”