Martin Luther King Jr, if he were alive to see it, would not have been a fan of Barack Obama’s presidential legacy. He probably wouldn’t have supported his candidacy in 2008 either, but he would be appalled at the actual policies which Barack Obama has carried out. While it is true that King had registered as a Republican in Alabama, that was merely the result of him being able to register that way and the southern racists had not yet switched over to being Republicans due to the Civil Rights Act. The Republican Party was the more right wing party, but far to the left of the Democrats today. King, himself, was a socialist and wrote an essay entitled “The Bravest Man I Ever Met” lauding the accomplishments of Norman Thomas, the six time Presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America. King was rumored to have been likely to have been on the ticket with Thomas in 1968, but the Schactmanite wing of the party had taken control at that convention and prevented a candidate from running, opting to support the Democratic candidate instead.
Neither the Republican nor Democratic platforms showed any comparable understanding of the nation’s needs in a time of crisis. It is to Franklin D Roosevelt’s credit that, when elected, he did not hesitate to use many of Thomas’s planks to build his New Deal. – Martin Luther King Jr, “The Bravest Man I Ever Met”
Despite this, many credit Obama as somehow fulfilling King’s vision for America. Indeed he would find joy that Americans would be willing to elect a man of African ancestry to the highest office in the land, but that does not mean he would be satisfied with how this President acted in office.
This, being the eve of Martin Luther King Jr’s holiday, and less than a week from when President Obama presumably leaves office – the Russian witch hunt leaves me a bit on edge stating it absolutely will happen – it is an ideal time to compare the legacy of Dr. King to that of President Obama.
Martin Luther King Jr, first and foremost, is remembered for his fight for racial equality. To many, he has been reduced to this one struggle alone, as he has been whitewashed by history. In 1955, King was helping organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott to protest the arrest of Rosa Parks for not giving up her seat, and I would be remiss to not mention that Claudette Colvin had been arrested for doing the same only slightly before. Afterward, he took the reins of Southern Christian Leadership Conference and began organizing movements across the nation for racial equality.
President Obama, by contrast, has gone out of his way to not discuss race matters as The Atlantic pointed out back in 2012. In fact, he has spoken less on matters of race than any other Democratic president since 1961. As race issues flared up with light being shone on the murder of unarmed black men and women by the police, he sided with the police. When Eric Holder and the Justice Department investigated the wrongful death of Michael Brown, in a case where the prosecutor bent the rules to not only allow testimony in defense of the accused at the grand jury, but allowed what he knew to be false testimony unchallenged, they found no wrongdoing. When things came to a boil and Micah Xavier Johnson took out police in Dallas, that is when President Obama decided to take a firm stand: with the police.
As CNN recounts, President Obama claimed that “[t]here is no possible justification for these kinds of attacks or any violence against law enforcement.” Dallas News reported last year, about a month prior to the shooting, about how a police trainee had shot and killed an unarmed black teen at a car dealership and would face no charges. This was no first for the Dallas Police Department. Compare that to Dr. King’s powerful words: “a riot is the language of the unheard.” After years of protests, young black men targeted by police had, and have, been still unheard and the president still does not hear them.
Martin Luther King Jr is often forgotten regarding his powerful anti-war stance. He spoke often against the war in Vietnam and against war in general.
I am convinced that it is one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world. Our involvement in the war in Vietnam has torn up the Geneva Accord. It has strengthened the military-industrial complex; it has strengthened the forces of reaction in our nation. It has put us against the self-determination of a vast majority of the Vietnamese people, and put us in the position of protecting a corrupt regime that is stacked against the poor.
It has played havoc with our domestic destinies. This day we are spending five hundred thousand dollars to kill every Vietcong soldier. Every time we kill one we spend about five hundred thousand dollars while we spend only fifty-three dollars a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty. – Martin Luther King Jr, Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution
And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace. Every time we drop our bombs in North Vietnam, President Johnson talks eloquently about peace. What is the problem? They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends. – Martin Luther King Jr, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace”
Soon after being sworn in, President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, apparently for the great accomplishment of not being George W Bush. Of course, that soon proved not to only be an ironically issued prize, but it began to be less and less clear that he wasn’t indeed George W Bush. He continued the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as long as he could – Iraq eventually forced us out despite the president’s efforts – normalized the use of drones for warfare and assassinations in countries we were not at war with, including of American citizens, and started even more wars. In 2014, CNN had counted seven countries we have bombed under the Obama Adminsitration.
Far from being anti-war, President Obama’s legacy has been of war and making the anti-war movement in the United States shrivel as self-proclaimed liberals began touting the president’s neoconservative arguments for war.
Martin Luther King’s other major focus was that of economic justice. He lauded Norman Thomas, in a birthday message as he was off to Oslo to receive his own, untarnished, Nobel Peace Prize, for his efforts on this front.
Your pursuit of racial and economic democracy at home, and of sanity and peace in the world, has been awesome in scope. It is with deep admiration and indebtedness that I carry the inspiration of your life to Oslo.
The part of Dr. King’s life which is forgotten the most is the Poor People’s Campaign, a multiracial movement to fight for economic rights and economic justice for the poor. King not only wanted welfare, but economic democracy, also known as socialism. Started in 1968, it also was apparently the last straw for the status quo which led to him being assassinated in March of that year.
While much of President Obama’s economic program is clouded by the rabid opposition by the Tea Party Republicans to absolutely anything he would try to do, what he has officially tried to do for American workers and the impoverished has been rather minimal and halfheartedly proposed. Wall Street was bailed out, the Big Three (Ford, GM, Chrysler) were bailed out, but not your average person. For the rich there was welfare; for everyone else there was austerity.
Counterpunch reported in February 2016 that Obama’s legacy has seen both the wealth gap steadily increasing significantly and poverty rising. The federal workforce has been slashed and remaining workers have been under pay freezes and low increases well below the rate of inflation for the past eight years. More people have health insurance, but the measure was written by the insurance companies and many who had health insurance have lost it as their plans ceased to exist. Unemployment has fallen since its peak coming into Obama’s presidency, but good paying union jobs have been lost and replaced with minimum wage entry level jobs, many of which offer less than full time hours to employees who want to go back to full time.
As we are on the precipice of a neoliberal dystopia, President Obama characterizes this as “the longest streak of private sector job creation in history.” There is no regret that he couldn’t repair the economy, in his eyes this economy of greater income inequality and greater poverty, where people are clawing their way to survive, is a success. How can anyone look at you with a straight face and say that Martin Luther King Jr would approve of a president who calls this a success?
Over the next four years, we should not be expecting anything better from a President Trump or, God forbid, a President Pence. Yet, this is not about them, the future of our discontent, this is about the past eight years. While there is much more that can be discussed about President Obama’s performance, especially on civil liberties and the development of a police state, the comparison to Dr. King in his three primary focuses tells us that we still have a long, long way to go. However, I would like to commend him on his efforts for transgender rights, which he has taken the initiative for on his own and which he seems genuinely interested in.
Martin Luther King Jr would not have approved of President Obama’s legacy.
[Featured Image by Keystone/Getty Images]