The national monument honoring the life, ministry and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C. (Sunday’s dedication ceremony was postponed due to Hurricane Irene) allows one to assess social justice in the United States and the administration of President Barack Obama.
When one measures Obama’s record and efforts by King’s concept of social justice, the assessment isn’t favorable.
King openly and forcefully championed the cause of poor, disenfranchised, oppressed and marginalized people.
Obama’s policies have championed the cause of bankers who helped take the U.S. economy to the brink of collapse.
When given the chance to fight to end the “temporary” reduction in tax rates for people making more than $250,000 last year, Obama (who’d promised to do so as a presidential candidate) refused to stand firm.
King was murdered in Memphis, Tenn., while supporting the cause of public sanitation employees.
The Obama administration has looked the other way as legislation was enacted in Wisconsin and measures were taken in other states to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights.
King’s opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam (and Indochina) was a great disappointment to President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson thought King would not criticize the war out of gratitude for Johnson’s support for civil rights legislation.
But King realized that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
This suggests that King would challenge the continued U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan. That war began almost 10 years ago because the Taliban regime in power provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist organization. The Taliban were driven out of political power in Afghanistan years ago. Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.
King would probably question why a nation struggling to find money to provide subsistence benefits to long-term unemployed workers, help improve public education, and provide for its elderly would continue the multi-billion-dollar-a-year war in Afghanistan.
He would openly challenge the idea that the nation should spend money on that war while political leaders claim they can’t help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure.
Obama has talked a lot about changing the tone of the political debate in Washington. He’s openly tried to avoid clashing with the Tea Party-inspired enemies of social justice for the poor, children, disabled, elderly, immigrants and marginalized.
Obama talks a lot about trying to protect the middle class. Obama has strangely refused to lead the nation’s political leaders to address glaring race-based inequities in education, criminal justice, health care, economic justice and other areas.
By contrast, King was preparing to lead a Poor People’s March on Washington to dramatize the plight of the poor in the wealthiest nation in the world when he died.
King didn’t shun the poor. He highlighted their plight and insisted that political leaders address the fundamental immorality of defining national wealth by crass materialism and national security by military adventurism.
King didn’t avoid talking about racism. He exposed and condemned it.
So King wouldn’t be impressed with the Obama administration. King would admire Barack Obama’s personal charm. He’d respect Obama’s intelligence. And King would probably commend Obama’s willingness to engage in dialogue with his political adversaries.
But King understood that those attributes don’t determine if life improves for people struggling “with their backs against the wall,” to use the words of King’s mentor, Howard Thurman.
People with their backs against the wall need the president to fight for them, not engage in high-sounding discourse.
People with their backs against the wall need the president to propose and champion that wealthy people and corporations pay taxes to protect and lift needy and vulnerable people.
King challenged the John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations. King challenged George Wallace and Ross Barnett. King defied John Patterson and J. Edgar Hoover. It’s unlikely he would have taken a different approach to Barack Obama.
It isn’t enough for King to have a monument in Washington. King didn’t live and die to be enshrined in stone. He lived and died to enshrine the nation and world in justice.
Justice isn’t defined by monuments, but by movements.
Sadly, Obama seems out of touch with King’s movement. He has chosen to see and hear no voices like King among his closest advisors. Obama has chosen not to fight for King’s dream but resist it. That may be his legacy.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.