January 15th, 2009 will mark what would have been the 80th birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. On January 19th we commemorate Dr. King's birthday as a national holiday. The following day, "January 20th, a country that, within living memory, denied some 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."
August 28th, 2008 in Denver, Colorado, Senator 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 at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. At the time I thought it would have been appropriate for Senator Obama, in his speech to the Democratic Party National Convention, to specifically acknowledge the historic coincidence of his nomination on the 40th Anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have A Dream."
Presumably, Senator Obama, his advisors and speech writers concluded that a passing reference to "a preacher from Georgia" 40 years ago in the acceptance speech was sufficient acknowledgment of the coincidence of both his and Dr. King's historic address to the "March On Washington" on the same date, August 28th, 1963.
Respectfully, I'd suggest that was a mistake.
Now that Obama has become America's first African-American president elect, I hope that in his inaugural address, the day following our national holiday commemorating Dr. King's birthday, he will make specific reference to the confluence of these two historic events in our nation's capital.
Recently I spent a week in Paris as the guest of the French organization, SOS Racisme. My invitation was part of Paris's celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Ninth World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates and commemoration of the legacy of Dr. King, 40 years after his death.
Nobel Laureates F. W. de Klerk of South Africa (1993 joint recipient with Nelson Mandela), David Hume of Northern Ireland, Ingrid Betancourt (former presidential candidate in Columbia, and a prisoner of the FARC guerillas for several years), and Lech Walesa of Poland gathered to bestow their annual "Peace Award" on Bono, the Irish musician and political activist. (Mikhail Gorbachev was absent because of medical reasons.) First Lady Carla Bruni Sarkozy and Bertrand Delanoe, Mayor of Paris were also present.
The questions most asked of me during the Conference were:
Is Barack Obama another Martin Luther King, Jr?
What would Dr. King say about the election of Obama?
Is the election of Obama as the first African-American president of the United States mean that Dr. King's dream has been fulfilled?
Did I ever think an African-American would become president of the United States 40 years after the death of Dr. King?
Does Obama's election indicate that racism for all practical purposes no longer exist in America?
Will Obama's election have any impact upon the number of African-American men incarcerated of the high percentage of out of wedlock births within the African-American community?
Having witnessed history first-hand with Dr. King and being fortunate to be one of his few advisors to live to witness the history-in-the-making that is the Obama presidency, I uniquely bridge a gap. I have both the honor and the responsibility to try and answer the overarching question: What would Martin Luther King, Jr. say about Senator Barack Obama's election as President of the United States?
Dr. King had an abiding belief in the basic goodness, fairness and decency of America. He never abandoned his confidence that a majority of Americans would ultimately embrace the precepts of our Declaration of Independence: That all persons are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.
He never doubted or lost faith in his religion, nor the righteousness of God. Martin would probably smile and say "Amen" as he listened to Senator Obama say, more than once, during the closing weeks of his presidential campaign that we have a "righteous wind at our back, but we can't slow down now."
Dr. King's faith and abiding belief in God was the core of his moral leadership. President-elect Obama's religion and faith in God appear central to his political leadership. Rev. Joseph Lowery, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference has been invited to deliver the benediction closing prayer. Martin would undoubtedly commend Obama for the invitation asking Rev. Lowery, his comrade Pastor and a co-founder of his SCLC, to deliver the Inaugural Benediction.
A somewhat more complex call to make would be Martin's take on Obama's invitation to Pastor Rick Warren of the evangelical Saddleback mega-church in Orange County, CA, to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. It has created a firestorm of criticism from his gay, lesbian and liberal supporters. But I think the invitation to Pastor Warren is consistent with the new paradigm of President-elect Obama's political leadership.
The basis for the criticism of Obama is Pastor Warren's opposition to same sex marriage. Moreover, he worked publicly in support of "Proposition 8" in the State of California. Prop 8 was a California ballot proposition that changed the state Constitution to restrict the legal definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman only. The majority of people in California and throughout the United States appear to oppose same sex marriage. A substantial number of persons and states recognize "civil unions" as appropriate among same sex couples. This is the current political reality in the United States today.
And more to the point, Rick Warren's acceptance of Obama's invitation in light of the President-elect's stated vision and strategy of a new coalition politics of inclusion may well say more about Warren's flexibility on the issue than Obama's.
"Seeing the things that Pastor Rick Warren and Reverend Joseph Lowery have in common is more important than seeing the things that separate them. America needs to see that. It's a step down the road where a majority of us see the things that straight Americans in love want are the same things that gay Americans in love want, too." [Huffington Post]
But this issue in some ways distracts us from the core question. Martin didn't need nor did he ask for my advice or that of other close advisors on issues of religious or moral conviction. Many people often forget that he was an ordained Christian Minister of the Gospel before he was a "civil rights" leader. Consequently, I will not hazard a guess as to what his position on same sex marriage might be. He would take measure of Barack Obama's religious conviction, and see the man as a moral Christian leader.
On the issue of race, Martin would remind us of what Dr. W.E.B. 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 (which 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 of slavery, segregation and racial discrimination. Until this occurs relations principally between whites and African-Americans will continue to define much of who we are as a nation.
Reverend Jesse Jackson has eloquently described Dr. King as "a minority dreamer with a majority vision." 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 majority white community.
After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the assumption of the presidency by former Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, some of us who worked closely with Dr. King, concluded: no fundamental change in race relations in America could be accomplished successfully and sustained unless it was done under the political leadership of a white man from the south. Major historic Civil Rights legislation under President Lyndon Johnson was followed by the presidencies of other white southern political leaders. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush seemed to validate this original political thesis. Our belief was predicated on the assumed political analysis that America would be more willing to follow a white southern political leader on the issue of race relations and equal economic opportunity than any politician from another part of our country.
We never contemplated the realistic possibility of a black President of the United States in Martin's or our lifetimes.
The election of Senator Barack Obama as President upends this political assumption. The magnitude and diverse geography of his Electoral College 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 years 40 years following Martin's assassination in Memphis, TN, the most recurring question asked of me has been: "Who today, i.e., what 'Black Leader,' if anyone, is most like Dr. King?" I would consistently answer, that Martin was sui generis, one of a kind. And, then ask rhetorically: "Who today is most like Michelangelo, Mozart, Galileo, Copernicus, Aristotle, Beethoven or Shakespeare?"
Until the election of Barack Obama, I would also consistently add that "in 12 years and 4 months, 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 event or person in the previous 400 years."
Now, confronted with the magnitude of domestic and international issues that will require his attention, an African-American President Barack Obama, during the next 8 years, may do more to foster racial, social, political and justice and economic opportunity in America than has been achieved by any other event or person, including Dr. King, in the previous 408 years. I never thought as Martin's former close advisor and speechwriter that I would live long enough to ever publicly write or say these words.
In our information technology-based economy, the realization of Dr. King's 1963 "Dream" of America requires a special kind of political wisdom and leadership.
President Obama represents a new generation in the 21st Century that has developed its own unique genre of political leadership. Business Week's November 11th, 2008 magazine described Barack Obama as "A Leader for the 'We' Generation."
20th century leaders focused on money, fame, and power, earning the title of the "me" generation. Their leadership destroyed many great institutions, as evidenced by the failures of Enron, WorldCom, and dozens of companies like them. The recent fiascos on Wall Street can be traced to the failure of "me" leaders who put themselves ahead of their institutions.
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.
What would Martin say? He would acknowledge that our foreign and domestic challenges require a different political matrix of problem solving; the building of a new political constituency to implement successful solutions. 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.
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."
In our "political" assessment of Obama, Martin would probably conclude, as I have, that a President Obama is most likely to be the 21st Century's first politician who can bring about fundamental and transformational change on the historically pervasive issue of race in America. He would undoubtedly note the historic irony that Barack Obama, a political leader who is not a white male from the South, with a substantial voter mandate of support, may be able to rise above the old established "race relations" paradigm of the 20th Century; and, chart a new direction for our country.
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. Martin would marvel with pride at how President-elect Obama has tapped into and ignited this fuel of potential talent and creativity. He might even compare Obama to 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.
As an elder, with awe and pride, Dr. King might say "Amen" and "Hallelujah" at Obama's creative use of advanced telecommunications technology, non-existent during his years of leadership and struggle. (I have often speculated and imagined how Martin's non-violent direct action leadership of the Civil Rights Movement could have been more effective if we had had laptops, Blackberrys and the internet for fund raising, organization and communication with each other and our constituent participants and supporters). He would admire and marvel as how President-elect Obama has inspired and harnessed the energy of this new information technology-based generation to address those problems requiring timely solutions for the benefit of our entire nation.
Anecdotal stories are beginning to come from the barber shops and basket ball 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" and currently relevant expression, and validation, of their black manhood to mainstream society. The pursuit and celebration of educational excellence may be taking hold as a realistic, potentially possible alternative lifestyle. To them, 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 the best that they can be.
Dr. King might advise us to carefully observe, whether, in the near term, President Obama's inspirational political "music" transcends the gangster and braggadocio 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.
Caroline Kennedy said it best:
"He has built a movement that is changing the face of politics in this country, and he has demonstrated a special gift for inspiring young people -- known for willingness to volunteer, but an aversion to politics -- to become engaged in the political process."
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 leadership 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 color of persons assembled, and the tears rolling down the cheeks of Reverend Jesse Jackson (differing from some cynics in the media and politics, Martin would have regarded Jesse's tears as genuine and authentic), 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 "It Still Felt Good the Morning After" said,
On the morning after a black man won the White House, America's tears of catharsis gave way to unadulterated joy.
...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."
Martin would say that on November 4, 2008 America substituted Barack Obama as its authentic original "first black president" for Toni Morrison's ersatz version, Bill Clinton.
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--young vs. old, student vs. cops, white vs., black--seemed as remote as the moon. 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.
(I, then co-chairman of New York State's Eugene McCarthy delegates to the National Democratic Party 1968 Convention, marched in Chicago, alongside then Bronx NY Congressman Herman Badillo in front of the Hilton Hotel where Vice-President Hubert Humphrey and Chicago Mayor Daley were headquartered.)
Forty-five years ago Martin articulated his optimism about the future for equal justice and opportunity in America. Before more than 250,000 people assembled in Wash, DC, at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, he said,
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...
One day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood; that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Dr. King believed that one day we would "transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood."
The late Ray Charles's version of "America the Beautiful" best reflects Martin's probable optimism about our country following the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States.
Oh beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife
Who more than self our country loved
And mercy more than life
America, America may God thy gold refine
Til all success be nobleness
And every gain devined
Dr. King was not naïve. He was a pragmatic realist. He would remind us, during the 20th century, that the 21st century journey of any African-American to become president, is likely to have "rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment," with setbacks here and there. Lest we forget, he would say, there were moments when "our buoyancy of hope" during our struggle against segregation and racism "was transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams were often shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted." But, in that melodic gospel-like tones of the Baptist Preacher he was, he would urge us never to forget that,
When our days became dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights became darker than a thousand midnights, (to) remember that there was a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that was able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.
Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. And as we continue our charted course, we may gain consolation in the words so nobly left by that great black bard who was also a great freedom fighter of yesterday, James Weldon Johnson:
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days
When hope unborn had died.
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place
For which our fathers sighed?
We have come over the way
That with tears hath been watered.
We have come treading our paths
Through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the bright gleam
Of our bright star is cast.
Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us the courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom.
Obama's election as President of the United States would not have been possible without the transformative effect of Dr. King's struggle, leadership and legacy in dismantling segregation and institutional racism in the United States and the sacrifices and contributions of those wintertime soldiers of our Civil Rights Movement.
As he witnessed the election of a President Obama, like several of us who worked with him, (blessed with longevity beyond April 4th, 1968) Martin might reflect back upon some of those historical milestones and earlier people along the road to Obama's election: the institution of slavery, Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, the Supreme Court decisions of Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1954 Brown decision declaring segregation in the public schools of America unconstitutional, Baker v. Carr (one person, one vote), the courageous heroism of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Ala., four young Black girls murdered by dynamite while attending Sunday school in Birmingham, Ala in Sept 1963, the murders of Jimmy Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo (a white woman from Detroit who had volunteered to drive civil rights workers in Selma, Ala) and of the three civil rights workers, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, in Philadelphia, Miss (depicted in the movie Mississippi Burning) in connection with voter registration; the tireless work, sacrifice and devotion of people like Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Rev. Vernon Johns, Ella Baker, Stanley Levison, Harry Wachtel, Bayard Rustin, labor leaders like A. Phillip Randolph (Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), Cleveland Robinson, David Livingston (District 65 Retail Wholesale Workers Union), Ralph Helstein (United Packing House Workers), Walter Reuther (UAW), Leon Foner (1199 Drug & Hospital Workers), and his clergy colleagues such as Reverends Abernathy, Sandy Ray, William "Bill" Jones, Thomas Kilgore, Gardiner Taylor, Billy Kyles, Judge Benjamin Hooks, C.K. Steele, Joe Lowery, Fred Shuttlesworth, Wyatt Tee Walker, and movement stalwarts like Diane Bevel, John Lewis, Water Fauntroy, Andy Young, Dorothy Cotton, Rev Jim Lawson, James Bevel, Dr. William G. Anderson, Albany, GA, and activists artists like Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Peter, Paul and Mary, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, and so many other unsung civil rights heroes to numerous to mention.
When asked by so many people as to what was my reaction to the television broadcast confirmation of Obama's election on November 4th, I said I was overcome with emotion and tears. My tears, however, were not principally because of Obama's success. They were provoked also by the memories of some of those persons mentioned above and others who worked so tirelessly to make Obama's election possible; but, who never lived long enough to personally witness it. (Early this month, the wintertime soldier hero, Rev. James Bevel passed away, having lived long enough to see an African-American voted in the White House but not long enough to see him take office.)
Martin might also see a connection between Obama's election success and the receptive psyche of mainstream white America conditioned by NBC's prime-time TV's family show of Bill Cosby, the omnipresence of national sports personalities like Michael Jordan, Arthur Ashe, Tiger Woods, the Williams Sisters, televised African-American participation in college and professional football and major league baseball; and the high profile government positions of power and authority exercised by Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell.
He would commend Obama for his recollection of the 1847 admonition of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglas's that "Power concedes nothing without a demand."
Dr. King often said:
The concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites - polar opposites so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.
What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on. What has happened is that we have had it wrong and confused in our own country, and this has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through power devoid of love and conscience.
Dr. King often paraphrased the French author Victor Hugo from his classic Les Misérables: "More powerful than the march of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come." To Martin, the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States would be an "idea whose time has come."
At the commencement of his campaign in Springfield, Illinois, on the steps of the State's Capitol, then Senator Obama, invoked the name and words of Dr King as one of the principal reasons for his candidacy for President of the United States. Quoting Dr. King, he said he was responding to what Martin often referred to as the "fierce urgency of now."
President-elect Obama was 6-years-old on the night of April 3rd, 1968 when Dr. King gave his last public speech in Memphis, TN. In his concluding remarks, Dr. King lamented that God "had allowed" him "to go up to the mountain," he had "looked over" and "seen the Promise Land." Poignantly and prophetically, he reflected that, while he may not get there with us, Dr. King wanted us to know, "that we, as a people, will get to the 'Promise Land.'"
Martin would say that President Obama has a historically unique opportunity to lead America from our 20th Century legacy of segregation and institutional racism, to the "Promise Land" of a 21st Century, color irrelevant, multiracial society. He would further say that we should remember
"That William Cullen Bryant is right: "Truth crushed to earth will rise again." ...That the Bible is right: "Be not deceived, God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." This is our hope for the Future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow with a cosmic past tense, "We have overcome, we have overcome, deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome."
President Obama has successfully updated, translated and applied our Civil Rights anthem of "We Shall Overcome" from the 1960s to the "Yes, We Can" mantra of the YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Internet, Blackberry generation.
Several persons abroad and at home have asked me what advice Dr. King would offer to President Obama. The Martin I remember would always be receptive to offer counsel, guidance wisdom and/or advice when sought from him. This was especially so in the case of young people.
It is unlikely that Martin would gratuitously offer President Obama advice, except in an instance where he believed Obama had substantively or materially embarked upon a course of domestic or foreign policies inconsistent with those he had represented to millions of people who voted to elect him.
On the other hand, I think Martin would have a lot to say, to the country as a whole, following Obama's election. On the issue of the special responsibility of exercising moral leadership during this critical time in our country, we should not forget Dr. King's challenge:
A genuine leader is not a subject for consensus, but he is a molder of consensus. On some positions cowardice ask the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question 'Is it politic?' Vanity asks the question 'Is it popular?' But conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' There comes a time when one must take a stand that is neither expedient, that's neither safe, that's neither politic or that is neither popular, but he must take that stand because it is right...
He would have some special words of advice to African-American young people. He would probably say to them, what he said fifty-two years ago in Montgomery, Alabama, in his keynote speech before the First Annual Institute of Non-violence and Social Change.
Fleecy locks and black complexion
Cannot forfeit nature's claim.
Skin may differ, but affection
Dwells in black and white the same
And were I so tall as to reach the pole
Or to grasp the ocean at a span,
I must be measured by my soul.
The mind is the standard of the man.
Whatever your life's work is, do it well. Even if it does not fall in the category of one of the so-called big professions, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead and the unborn could do it no better.
"If you can't be a pine on the top of the hill
Be a scrub in the valley -- but be
The best little scrub by the side of the hill,
Be a bush if you can't be a tree.
If you can't be a highway just be a trail
If you can't be the sun be a star;
It isn't by the size that you win or fail --
Be the best of whatever you are."
Martin's shorthand admonition to African-American young people would be: devote yourselves to the pursuit of educational excellence. (The Proverbial dog can only eat your homework but so many times).
Commit your selves to the assumption of personal responsibility for your personal behavior and social conduct. Quoting the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, Martin might say:
"Consider this fact: the most famous black man in America isn't dribbling a ball or clutching a microphone. He has no prison record. He has not built a career on four letter words."
To pastors and ministers of the Church he would remind them of the central role Church based leadership played during the Civil Rights Movement. He might suggest they pause and reflect on the transformation of an earlier "social gospel's" pastoral leadership to the currently popular "prosperity gospel." He might ask, especially in today's economic environment, whether expensive cars, private air planes, bling jewelry and multiple luxurious homes are appropriate symbols for a religious leadership which seeks to address the needs of "the least of these."
He would summon the attention of current pastors and ministers, Rabbis, priests and Imams to candidate Obama's commitment to "Faith Based Initiatives" to address and solve many of the serious social and economic problems requiring our attention and action in communities across the nation. Martin, in this limited instance, might remind President Obama of the speech that candidate Obama delivered in Zanesville, Ohio, in July 2008, when he was campaigning in that State's democratic primary.
Now, I didn't grow up in a particularly religious household. But my experience in Chicago showed me how faith and values could be an anchor in my life. And in time, I came to see my faith as being both a personal commitment to Christ and a commitment to my community; that while I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn't be fulfilling God's will unless I went out and did the Lord's work.
There are millions of Americans who share a similar view of their faith, who feel they have an obligation to help others. And they're making a difference in communities all across this country -- through initiatives like Ready4Work, which is helping ensure that ex-offenders don't return to a life of crime; or Catholic Charities, which is feeding the hungry and making sure we don't have homeless veterans sleeping on the streets of Chicago; or the good work that's being done by a coalition of religious groups to rebuild New Orleans.
You see, while these groups are often made up of folks who've come together around a common faith, they're usually working to help people of all faiths or of no faith at all. And they're particularly well-placed to offer help. As I've said many times, I believe that change comes not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques.
That's why Washington needs to draw on them. The fact is, the challenges we face today -- from saving our planet to ending poverty -- are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck.
To the country as a whole, Martin might say that we face unprecedented financial, economic, healthcare, education, substance abuse, and foreign policy problems whose solutions, for implementation, will require the broadest base of citizens' support. He would most likely say that the United States, at this time and place in history, needs the maximum amount of unity and political commitment to address those problems confronting our new president. He would undoubtedly remind America:
"Words like hope, change and progress might seem like naïve campaign sloganeering in a dark age. But think of the way those words ring for a people whose forbearers marched into billy clubs and dogs, whose ancestors fled north by starlight, feeling the moss on the back of trees."
He would urge us, like never before, to become proactive and involved in those critical issues affecting our respective communities. He might suggest that unless we come together to provide maximum support to President Obama, he will be unable to successfully achieve many of those health care, education, mortgage foreclosure relief, and jobs creation initiatives described during the course of his primary campaign for president.
It would be easy to close by adding my agreement to these ideas, but doing so certainly risks diluting my thesis. These are not my values put into words and shoveled into Martin King's mouth. Rather, these are the ideals of the friend I knew so well; it is how I genuinely believe he would have seen the current situation.
Perhaps surprisingly, the reason that I agree with these concepts actually explains far more about why Martin and I became friends in 1960 than the fact that they have my byline on them in 2009. They are my values because the man who imparted them to me proved beyond a doubt he stood for all humanity and put his intellect, his reputation, and even his life on the line to explain them.
Martin King rigorously stood up to any argument I and other of his advisors could muster about his ahead-of-its-time vision. He convinced us of the clarity of his thinking about this country. Its problems, its solutions, its possibilities. I was not a believer because we were friends, he made me a believer, and in seeing that, I knew I'd, like several others would follow him to the ends of the earth to spread his message
He is no longer with us, and I am not so foolish or stupid to suggest that I am standing in his place. I am merely echoing his truths. Nothing more. But I certainly could do no less in commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday on the threshold of America electing its first African-American to serve as the 44th President of the United States.