Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Man Who Could Be King

August 28th, 2008 in Denver Obama accepted the Democratic Party's nomination as its candidate for president of the United States. His acceptance speech was 40 years to the day of Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech. January 15th, 2009 marked what would have been the 80th birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Today we commemorate Dr. King's birthday as a national holiday. Tomorrow, in a country that within living memory, denied black citizens the right to vote will inaugurate its first black president. A man with a funny name and African blood will stand where 43 white men have stood before him and take the oath of office.

The coincidence doesn’t go unnoticed, but the questions do remain unasked. Is Barack Obama the next Martin Luther King, Jr? What would Dr. King say about the election of Obama? Is the election of the first black president of the United States mean that Dr. King's dream has been fulfilled? Does Obama's election indicate that racism is no longer an insurmountable obstacle in America? Will Obama's election have any impact upon a number of social ills within the black community? What would Martin Luther King, Jr. say about Senator Barack Obama's election as President of the United States? The reason people refrain from asking such questions is not that they don’t merit asking, but that we’d feel presumptuous proposing an answer.

Dr. King is and will remain one of the most respected Black Americans in our history. He had an abiding belief in the basic goodness and decency of America. He never abandoned his confidence that a majority of Americans would ultimately embrace the basic precept of our Declaration of Independence: "That all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." As we celebrate one man's accomplishments on the eve of another’s he would probably smile and say "Amen" as he listened to Senator Obama say, more than once, that we have a "righteous wind at our back, but we can't slow down now." Maybe we don’t ask those questions because we are afraid of what the answer may ultimately be.

On the issue of race, Dr. King would remind us of what Dr. Dubois said in 1903: That the problem of the 20th Century was the "color line" and, that "race" has been the most divisive theme in the history of America. He would say, therefore, that the challenge of the 21st Century is how the United States can transition from its legacy of slavery and segregation, a legacy that has defined race relations in America for previous generations, to a multi-racial society predicated on the pursuit of excellence. He would probably say that as a country, we must come to terms with our past. We cringe at the mention of slavery, ignore the realities of modern day self-segregation, and racial discrimination is all but accepted as inevitable. Until we face the truth of this legacy, race relations principally between whites and blacks will continue to define much of who we are as a nation.

Martin bequeathed to us a unique and historic opportunity to chart a new direction. However, he knew this could not be done without a substantial base of support within the white community. Obama’s diverse victory represents an ethnic, age, gender, and voter demographic political tsunami. November 4th, 2008 is likely to realign the political landscape of America for years to come. During the 40 years following Martin's assassination the most recurring question asked has been who if anyone, is most like Dr. King? Dr. King was one of a kind. Who today is most like Michelangelo, Mozart, Galileo, Aristotle, or Shakespeare? Until the election of Barack Obama, in the 12 years from 1956 to April 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. may have done more to foster racial, social and political justice in our country than any other person or event in our history. Now, confronted with the magnitude of domestic and international issues that will require his attention, a Black American President may do more to foster racial, social, political and justice and economic opportunity in America than has been achieved by any other person or event, including that of Dr. King. Does that make him the next Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? No.

The sweeping victory of Barack Obama ushers in a new era of leadership that will affect every aspect of American institutions and that sounds a death knell for the top-down, power-oriented leadership prevalent in the 20th century. A new style of 'bottom-up, empowering' leadership focusing on collaboration is sweeping the country. A new wave of 21st century authentic leaders will take over U.S. institutions of every type: business, education, health care, religion, and nonprofits. These new leaders recognize that an organization of empowered leaders at every level will outperform "command-and-control" organizations every time. Our foreign and domestic challenges require a different political matrix of problem solving. We need to build a new political constituency to implement successful solutions. We need a leader who can inspire a new generation of all Americans to be the best that they can be. Dr. King would most likely say that President Barack Obama appears to understand this better than any other political leader today and is ready to fill that role.

He might direct our attention to the speech that President-elect Obama delivered following his primary victory in South Carolina. Obama said,

"This election is about the past versus the future. It's about whether we settle for the same divisions and distraction and drama that passes for politics today, or whether we reach a politics of common sense and innovation - a shared sacrifice and shared prosperity."

The current culture in America is a by-product of today's black experience and of the legacy of slavery and segregation. In language, dance, fashion, sports, and music, it is this black experience that has fueled the engine of much of our popular culture. President-elect Obama has tapped into and ignited this fuel of potential talent and creativity. Obama is a musical artist blessed with perfect pitch. Obama's ear and ideas are more in tune with the hopes and dreams of a new multi-racial Internet generation than any other national leader in America.

Anecdotal stories are beginning to come from the barber shops and basketball courts in the hood, following Obama's election as president, suggesting that young black men are starting to re-examine and reconsider whether or not their dreadlocks, baggy low-rise pants, do rags and use of Ebonics are the most "authentic" expression, and validation, of their black manhood. The pursuit and celebration of educational excellence may be taking hold as a realistic, potentially possible alternative lifestyle. If Obama can be elected President of the United States of America, then, opportunities may exist, that they never seriously considered as "real" for them, to pursue and become who they want to be. Dr. King might advise us to carefully observe, whether, in the near term, President Obama's inspirational political "music" transcends the gangster rap of the hood and engenders its own authentic constituency among young black men. He, like many of us, would notice that Obama has motivated an enthusiastic new generation who has embraced him as their spokesperson and messenger.

Crowds of 25,000 to 100,000 and more, mostly white people under forty years of age, and African-Americans never before seen in such magnitude since Martin's civil rights and peace movement in the '60s, assembled to see and hear Senator Obama during the democratic primaries for president. The television pictures of the ethnic demographic, gender, age and color mosaic of Obama's supporters in Grant Park in Chicago on that historic night of November 4th, 2008 were and are an affirmation of Martin's 1963 "Dream" of a future America. Dr. King would note that President-elect Obama's speech to the nation and world that night reflected the knowledge of Obama and his speechwriters of many of the themes and words articulated by him in his speeches during the Civil Rights Movement. In referring to his successful election as President of the United States, Obama said to his supporters, who had gathered in Grant Park in Chicago on election night, that his victory was

The answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day. It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment , change had come to America.

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America-I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you-we as a people will get there.

There will be setbacks and false starts. Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partnership and pettiness and immaturity that have poisoned our politics for so long. This election has many first and many stories that will be told for generations.

But one that's on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She's a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voices heard in this election except for one thing -- Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old. She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons -- because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin. And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America -- the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times when we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome." Yes, we can.

America we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves-if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time.

Among the many extraordinary moments of Obama's speech at Grant Park, those that Martin might have commented upon would be the High-Definition TV pictures showing the panoramic kaleidoscope of age, gender, and race assembled, and the tears rolling down the cheeks of Reverend Jesse Jackson and the beautiful picture on stage that evening of the affirmation of the Black family, as represented by President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters. Frank Rich writing in the Sunday New York Times, in a column captioned "On the morning after a black man won the White House, America's tears of catharsis gave way to unadulterated joy." Said,

Let's be blunt. Almost every assumption about America that was taken as given by political culture on Tuesday morning was proved wrong by Tuesday night."The most conspicuous clichés to fall, of course were the twin suppositions that a decisive number of white Americans wouldn't vote for a black presidential candidate -- and that they were lying to pollsters about their rampant racism. But the polls were accurate. There was no "Bradley effect." A higher percentage of white men voted for Obama than any Democrat since Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton included."

If there were any doubts the 1960 are over, they were put to rest on election night when our new first family won the hearts of the world as it emerged on that vast blue stage to join the celebration in Chicago's Grant Park. The bloody skirmishes that took place on that same spot during the Democratic Party Convention 40 years ago. This is another America, hardly a perfect or prejudice-free America, but a nation that can change and does, aspiring to perfection even if it can never achieve it.