In 2008 President Obama inspired people from all backgrounds by his firm commitment to what Dr. King called the "fierce urgency of now". It was a young Dr. King's response to many who thought that he should wait, that his tactics were to radical, and his positions too bold.
But yesterday when addressing a group of activists in London, President Obama had the following to say about Black Lives Matter activists:
Once you've highlighted an issue and brought it to people's attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can't just keep on yelling at them.
And you can't refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position. The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room, and then to start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved.
You then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable, that can institutionalize the changes you seek, and to engage the other side, and occasionally to take half a loaf that will advance the gains that you seek, understanding that there's going to be more work to do, but this is what is achievable at this moment."
Many heard this as sound and sage advice from a seasoned president who has a background in political organizing. But what was tragic about these comments is that with them President Obama created a false dichotomy between activism and incremental policy change that not only discredits some of the good work that the Black Lives Matter Movement is doing on the ground, but also dismisses the true legacy of leaders like Dr. King, Bayard Rustin, A. Phillip Randolph, Dorothy Height, and Fannie Lou Hamer from whom he claims to gain great inspiration.
The truth is that the President knows that by supporting policy changes on the state and local level, Black Lives Matter activists have been behind the Ban the Box initiative to enable formerly incarcerated individuals to actually have a shot at employment as they re-enter society. It is also no secret that Black Lives Matter activists have been working on a local and state level to work for minimum wage increases for workers. We also know that clergy leaders have partnered with the Black Lives Matter movement and have had their participation in peace-making trainings in Oakland and in community led dialogues on improving community policing in Los Angeles. More than that, we also know that Black Lives Matter leaders like DeRay Mckesson are seeking incremental change by running for mayor in cities like Baltimore.
So is it true that the Black Lives Matter movement is only "yelling" and is not seeking incremental change and a seat "at the table"? No, it's not.
But it is true that Hillary Clinton had a huge win in the New York primaries where it looks like she has made a Bernie Sanders nomination an impossibility. And it is true that Secretary Clinton, like all Democrats before her, will want to do all that she can to win back some of the so-called "silent majority" of working class white voters who seem to be either hypnotized by "Tumpmania" enthralled by Bernie Sanders. And with Sanders trailing, and Senator Cruz and Governor Kasich now joining forces to defeat Donald Trump, some of these voters may be looking for alternatives.
But what about millennials? Didn't millennials factor decisively in electing President Obama in 2012? Recent polls have shown that Senator Sanders has a double digit lead among millennials, they would flock to Secretary Clinton in a race against Trump.
So although I suspect the President's remarks may have been interpreted as the sage wisdom of a veteran activist turned politician, the timing of his remarks cannot be ignored. And if he intended to put black millennial voters in their place by ignoring the work that they are actually doing on the ground, Secretary Clinton may indeed still win the White House, if for no other reason than the sheer terror of the prospect of a Trump presidency.
However, I sincerely hope that millennials, their political cohesion as a new progressive voting bloc, and the outstanding work they are beginning to do is not discounted. The future of our democracy will depend on leadership that can capture the imagination of millennials, not sell them short with condescending "advice" based on false dichotomies.
This was how a young leader named Martin Luther King, Jr. captured the imagination of an entire generation of 20 and 30 somethings of his day. They saw no lack of efficacy in both meeting with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson privately and in organizing and "yelling" for change in the streets. They did not take every meeting they were offered. They did not do everything the White House wanted them to do. Yet, they achieved what no one thought was possible. And whether you are a Tea Party Republican or a Bernie Sanders Democrat, we have all reaped the benefit of their activism.
But over time, something changed. Compromises were made. And we have forty years of the War on Drugs and a mass incarceration industry to show for it, all at the hands of both Democrats and Republicans who grew up in an era of "yelling" and profound change. Who knows? Maybe if that generation had focused as much on "yelling" as they did on having a seat "at the table" this generation wouldn't have to still be "yelling" as much today.