by Dr. Boyce Watkins
When President Obama was inaugurated for the first time back in 2009, I was speaking at a large black church in New York. Of course we were all bubbling with pride over the election, which the president won with flying colors. Barackomania was in the air that day, and I shared in the excitement over seeing our president and his beautiful family take their first steps into the White House.
But while some of us were enthusiastic about this new opportunity, some folks thought that we’d experienced Juneteenth all over again. I remember the choir director of the church changing the words of the song “We Shall Overcome,” to “We HAVE Overcome,” which the congregation sang with joy. That’s when I knew our community was in serious trouble, since the success of one man has almost nothing to do with the plight of 40 million people. Not only was it unfair to expect President Obama to be the answer to all of our problems, I knew that neither Obama nor his white male cabinet would be willing to expend many of their resources to do anything for a group of people who vote out of faith without seeking confirmation that their votes actually lead to decisive political action. In fact, some seemed to believe that because he had made it, we’d all made it.
As I left the church, a proud woman emerged with a beautiful portrait of President Obama. “I’m going to put it up on my wall right next to my pictures of Martin Luther King and Jesus,” she said. I just smiled, because the last thing I wanted to do was rain on the woman’s parade by telling her what I was really thinking. It’s risky business to get in between any woman and her new husband, her pastor or (in this case) what appeared to be her Lord and savior. I too was happy to see that we’d gotten our first bi-racial president, but I also know that black faces in high places don’t always mean that there will be progress for the rest of us.
Thinking about this woman’s remarks four years later, I confess that if we are looking for a black public figure who embodies the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama is not that man. He might be JFK or a hint of Abraham Lincoln, but those posters with President Obama next to Martin Luther King are about as deceptive as putting an image of Aretha Franklin next to a half-nude photo of Rihanna.
While there is hardly any evidence whatsoever to link Dr. King to Obama, it would also be patently unfair to the president to expect him to be Martin Luther King. At the same time, EVERY president, black or white, has a distinct obligation to contribute to the struggle against racial inequality, especially if he leverages the legacy of Dr. King for his own political benefit. Dr. King once said that we should not judge a man by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character; this is true even if the man you’re judging is black.
I am not positioned to say that President Barack Obama is a man of poor character. But I can confidently state that a) he is a politician, which means that deception and manipulation are part of his job description and b) he is not in a position that rewards him for doing things for black people (even as he does things for other major groups). Instead, the president is given the job of supporting the interests of those who have historically sought to oppress African Americans. Barack Obama, for the most part, is a team player and the truth is that we’re not always on that team.
But if one were to seek out the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, a person we might want to look at is Dr. Cornel West. Rather than automatically dismissing what I say as hogwash (since this is the knee-jerk reaction to anyone who doesn’t automatically presume that Obama’s presidency is always good for black people), I encourage you to consider the similarities between the two men:
1) They were both strong men of God: Professor West has preached quite a few sermons in his day and we know that Dr. King was an ordained minister. Another thing that Dr. King and Dr. West have in common is that in some cases, they were too connected to the word of God to be invited into anyone’s church. Dr. King was the man who would get you into trouble because he insisted on speaking truth, even when it wasn’t popular, which is no different from the life of Cornel West.
2) They were both extraordinary scholars: Dr. King famously skipped the 9th and 12th grades in high school to attend college at the age of 15. Dr. West graduated from Harvard University in three years with a very high GPA, and then marched on for his PhD at Princeton. Both men are strong reminders that in order to secure your right to freedom in a racist society, you must be intelligent enough to know how to determine the pathway to your own liberation.
3) They were both men of the people who avoided the temptation to suck up corporate money in exchange for their silence: Many of the public figures you see on all sides of the political fence are bought and paid for like products on a store shelf. This is largely due to the fact that the perpetual negro dream has historically been to find the white man willing to offer you the most money, even if you are well-educated. Then, these large corporations that are wired for exploitation begin to “shape” your perspectives to the point that you don’t even know who you are anymore. Unfortunately, the corruption goes all the way to the top, which is why big soda corporations have convinced the NAACP to lobby in favor of keeping large sugary drinks in black neighborhoods, which is simply despicable. In our quest for validation and economic security, we somehow never learned that you can’t take money from any old person or group who offers it to you. The price may end up being your soul.
4) They both believed in non-violence: Dr. King spoke against the Vietnam War at a time when it was highly unpopular to do so. This cost him invitations to the White House, much of his popularity and a whole bunch of friends. Over 40 years later, Dr. West reminds us that drone strikes shouldn’t be targeted toward young children overseas, even if a black man is squeezing the trigger. West’s decision to speak against the American war machine in the face of a popular president has cost him much of his reputational capital and a whole bunch of money. In both cases, the men were attacked for their points of view, and also in both cases, history will prove them right.
5) They both spoke up against racial inequality: Even though mainstream media has turned Dr. Martin Luther King into a corporate marshmallow, the truth is that he was a man who spoke up for the rights of black and brown people. Unfortunately, it has become unpopular to fight for African Americans, which is why President Obama recently stated that immigration reform is his number one priority (as a thank you to Hispanic voters, who gave him fewer votes than the black community). When it comes to the fight against racism, I’m not sure if President Obama is better than a white guy who has to prove his loyalty instead of playing the race card with the color of his skin.
6) They were both disliked by most white people and a large percentage of black people: It’s easy to remain silent and go along with the program, since that’s what most of us do. But as Dr. King once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” The Obama presidency is a very uncomfortable time for those who truly care about black people, since there is a firestorm of controversy that comes with disagreeing with the administration’s policies (or lack thereof). But those who truly care about the fight against racism realize that we can’t become complacent just because a bi-racial American is occupying the White House.
7) They were both trouble makers: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once famously said, “Great women are rarely well-behaved.” The same is true for great people in general. Both Dr. King and Dr. West understood that typically, struggle breeds progress. So, if you want the latter, you must be prepared to endure the former. Both men have shown a willingness to get arrested, receive death threats and even endure hatred from their own community in order to do what is right. The task is that much more challenging for Dr. West because over time, the color line in America has become far more blurred and ambiguous: Many middle class black people could care less about poor black people or those who’ve been affected by mass incarceration, so the black divide between rich and poor is forming before our very eyes.
Of course, those who support Obama without thinking much about his policies are going to tell me that my comparisons are crazy. The thing about falling in love is that we believe what we want to believe, even if all the evidence points in the opposite direction. So, this comparison is not written for those who believe that Obama can do no wrong and it’s not written to get people to like Cornel West. Instead, it is written to say that if you’re listening to West right now and find yourself angry at him for his uncomfortable words at an inconvenient time, the fact is that this might just be history repeating itself.