Glen Ford on Obama and MLK

Glen Ford is the executive editor of Black Agenda Report. This article hits on a number of points I’ve had swirling about in my head the past several days, which I hope to be able to collect coherently and post soon.

Yes, the article is from Al-Jazeera’s English site. If people can get over that fact and realize that Al-Jazeera is not a “terrorist news channel” (I have actually heard people call it that), they’ll find the quality of commentary and fact-gathering is consistently top-notch and often provides perspective we are SORELY lacking in our American media vacuum.

Excerpt:

When the New York Times describes the emerging Obama administration as “centre-right,” there is not much for an honest progressive to defend – and most African-Americans are progressive on economic issues and questions of war and peace.

Beyond a ritual counting of the president-elect’s African-American appointees, most African-Americans seem oblivious to the political nature of his cabinet, his policy pronouncements and shameful silences.

More likely, they pretend to be oblivious so as not to lose that once-in-a-lifetime feeling that happened when a black man won.

It is not simply that the Obama-ites failed to muster a defence in Harlem or Baltimore or other venues; admittedly, it is difficult to defend the indefensible.

What is most shocking – maddening – is their rejection of any political or moral standard for evaluating the black soon-to-be president.

All that remains is the fact of Obama’s power and the delusion that blacks somehow share in that power.

Ford goes on to say that Obama actually compares more to Lyndon Johnson than to Dr. King, if you must compare him to a political figure from the 1960’s. King realized that a movement for equality and economic uplift of those who are underprivileged cannot co-exist with war, a view most decidedly not shared by Obama.

Full text of the article

Quotes from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every year on Martin Luther King, Jr. day I like to try to call attention to some of the writings and statements of Dr. King that illustrate the more radical side of his person and work than we usually get on this day with its endless replays of the “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s not that the speech is deficient, but the sad truth seems to be that we have so emphasized King as a “nice guy” with a dream that people will “be nice to each other” that we have lost track of how radical a figure he really was, how dangerous he was to unjust power structures, and the precise reasons why he became so influential in his time. While comparisons between King and Jesus have definitely been overdone in some circles, what we’ve done to King is not entirely different from what we’ve done to Jesus in that regard.

This year’s celebration of Dr. King is particularly poignant, as it comes one day before the inauguration of the first African-American president, Barack Obama. While I must say I am disturbed by what seems to me can only be described as a “messianic fervor” surrounding Obama’s becoming president, it would be amiss to not recognize the monumental significance of the event when less than half a century ago, in the lifetimes of many people who are with us today, it was a significant event for black Americans to even vote in many parts of the country (let alone run for a major office!). Obama himself is not the fulfillment of King’s dream, despite the rhetoric I’ve heard coming fast and loose from many lips and pens over the past few days, but his becoming president still in many ways has to be seen as a watershed moment in American race relations.

This year I want to post some quotes from King’s influential “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, as well as a link to the full text. This letter, written in April 1963, outlined the basis of King’s belief that people must strive for justice in the streets, as well as in the courts, in response to a piece by eight white clergy that accused “outsiders” of “instigating” demonstrations that undermined law and order. The authors of the piece, entitled “A Call For Unity”, recognized that injustice existed but deplored the demonstrations and argued that justice should be sought through the legal system, not in defiance of it.

In the spirit of my belief that power rarely concedes without struggle and must be challenged on all fronts, whether in the streets, the courts, the press, or wherever else it may be found, here are some quotes from King’s “Letter”.

…I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Full text from the University of Pennsylvania

Early morning, April 4, a shot rings out in the Memphis sky…

As you’re probably aware, on this day 40 years ago Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

Fewer people are aware of this speech he gave 41 years ago, today.

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence

by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 4, 1967

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

The truth of these words is beyond doubt but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.

Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.

In the light of such tragic misunderstandings, I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church — the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate — leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.

I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia.

Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they can play in a successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reason to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides.

Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the NLF, but rather to my fellow Americans, who, with me, bear the greatest responsibility in ending a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents.

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Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence

This is one of King’s most important speeches and yet one of his most little-known. Delivered on April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated, this speech provides a scathing denunciation of the practices of the American government on the world stage, particularly in Vietnam. King extends his methodology of nonviolent action to the nation-state, famously saying “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

We have institutionalized King, making him into an icon of the supposedly American ideals of freedom and justice and neglected to remember his enormously potent critique of America’s very failure to live up to those ideals. He has been turned into some kind of fuzzy saint and placed high in the pantheon of “America’s greatsTM,” a would-be tool for those whose violence he denounced. It is imperative that we drink deeply from King’s critique of the violence of American society and extend it to the present-day situation, to the actions and even very nature of corporations as well as nation-states and revolutionaries, exploring the ways violence breeds violence and a violent reaction destroys our humanity just as surely as does oppression. We must inhabit his vision for reconciliation through loving our enemies. The following story, taken from Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be, demonstrates the depth and revolutionary power of King’s vision through the action of his comrades in the SCLC:

One evening, during the turbulent weeks when Selma, Alabama, was the focal point of the civil rights struggle in the American South, a large crowd of black and white activists was standing outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church, singing to pass the time. Suddenly a funeral home operator from Montgomery took the microphone. He reported that a group of black students demonstrating near the capitol just that afternoon had been surrounded by police on horseback, all escape barred, and cynically commanded to disperse or take the consequences. Then the mounted police waded into the students and beat them at will. Police prevented ambulances from reaching the injured for two hours. Our informant was the driver of one of those ambulances, and afterward he had driven straight to Selma to tell us about it.

The crowd outside the church seethed with rage. Cries went up: “Let’s march!” Behind us, across the street, stood, rank on rank, the Alabama state troopers and the local police forces of Sheriff Jim Clark. The situation was explosive. A young black minister stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s time we sang a song.” He opened with the line, “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, Lord!” the crowd responded. . . “Do you you love Martin King?” “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

Right through the chain of command of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he went, the crowd each time echoing, warming to the song, “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!” Without warning he sang out, “Do you love Jim Clark?” The sheriff?! “Cer-certainly, Lord” came the stunned, halting reply. “Do you love Jim Clark?” “Certainly, Lord” – it was stronger this time. “Do you love Jim Clark?” Now the point had sunk in: “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

The Rev. James Bevel then took the mike. We are not just fighting for our rights, he explained, but for the good of the whole society. “It’s not enough to defeat Jim Clark – do you hear me, Jim? – we want you converted. We cannot win by hating our oppressors. We have to love them into changing.”

And Jim Clark did change. Realizing he could not be reelected without the black vote, he began courting black voters and later confessed that he had been wrong in his bias against blacks.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. realized that the vision had to include more than just improving the status of oppressed people – that it includes loving the oppressors and consistently applying the critique of violence to areas beyond our immediate sphere. As globalization increasingly brings us into the living rooms of people in Sri Lanka, China, and Bangladesh (and vice versa), we must become aware of our relationships with them, with the ways our affluent lifestyles do violence to them, and ways we can oppose violence and purveyors of violence while yet showing the love of Christ which transforms the most wretched sinners into beautiful saints.

May we, like Dr. King prays, know the world in which we live and how to be ministers of reconciliation, agents of the Kingdom of God within it.

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence

by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 4, 1967

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

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