A poster with the following quote hangs in my campus office:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
When I consider this quote, I usually consider it in reverse as well, or via the concept that our lives BEGIN the day we become vocal and engaged with things that matter. Looked at in this way, the quote is one many of my students convey, albeit in different words, once they are awakened to feminism and/or working for social justice.
Coretta Scott King, whom I think should share this holiday along with Martin Luther King due to her lifelong commitment to social justice and to her many activist contributions, notes that “Dr. King knew that it wasn’t enough just to talk the talk, that he had to walk the walk for his words to be credible. And so we commemorate on this holiday the man of action, who put his life on the line for freedom and justice every day.”
MLK’s insistence on “walking the walk” led to 29 jail sentences and various violent attacks against his person, yet he refused to become silent. Moreover, in spite of the violence and hatred directed against him, he refused to use his voice as an instrument of hate. He believed, as Coretta Scott King summarizes, “that nonviolent action is the most powerful, revolutionary force for social change available to oppressed people in their struggles for liberation.”
Today, unfortunately, we have not taken this lesson to heart. Oppressed groups struggling for liberation often resort to violence in attempts to bring about change. Likewise, those in power use violence as a first choice rather than a last resort. The US, for example, continues to act as if violence is they way to bring about change, that “freedom is on the march” due to our imperialist actions in the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe.
If MLK was alive today, he would decry those pundits who claim that we have achieved the dream of a post-racist world, he would certainly be against the US occupation of Iraq, and he most definitely would speak about the enduring injustice of an anti-Palestine war/media machine that, through its lies, frames the oppressed as the oppressor.
MLK said that we must decide if we “will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness.” Well, the US, and Israel, and many other global centers of power, are certainly walking in the darkness of destructive selfishness. In so doing, they are marching the world closer to its death.
Further, on this, the eve of a historic inauguration, many are remaining silent about things that matter. Even more disturbing, many are voicing comparisons between MLK and Obama while failing to discuss the very important ways in which their differences matter. Glen Ford, of Black Agenda Report, wrote an excellent piece, “Who is Black America’s Moral Emissary to the World?” which analyzes these erroneous comparisons.
As Ford argues:
It is true that there could have been no Obama presidency had Dr. King and the movement he sprang from not existed, but that simple fact of history does not amount to a King benediction from the grave for Obama’s moral character and political policies. Indeed, Dr. King’s life and words are indelible evidence that he and Obama represent opposing moral and political camps.
Yet, rather than examining the ways in which they differ in their visions, what we are supposed to see is the similar color of their skin. This melanin based ‘sameness’ is supposed to comfort the progressives and social justice workers among us. Many have indeed latched onto this only skin deep hope for change.
However, Obama’s bailout record thus far, his choices for his administration (Bush’s defense guy, the head of the Fed running the treasury?!?), his pandering to bankers, his hawkish support of EXPANDED military intervention, his alliance to AIPAC and the Center for Foreign Relations, all of these are proof, that, as Ford argues, comparisons to MLK are misguided. As Ford notes, “the fact that one of these men fought his whole life against the forces of militarism and economic exploitation, while the other empowers, and is empowered by, bankers and militarists” should be raising serious alarm bells for “Obama-ites.”
Using the Vietnam War as an example of MLK’s refusal to become silent on things that matter, Ford further writes:
If the Obamites had more presence of mind, they would avoid comparisons with Dr. King, which can only redound to Obama’s great detriment. King’s break with his onetime ally, President Lyndon Johnson, set the standard for both political and moral behavior. When it became clear that the War on Poverty was doomed by the war in Vietnam, which acted “like some demonic destructive suction tube,” devouring all available resources, King publicly declared against the war. In doing so, he severed what had been the most productive relationship between an American president and a Black leader in U.S. history. But the war gave him no choice, since military expenditures made “rehabilitation” of the American poor impossible. Both morality and politics led to the same conclusion: the Movement could not coexist with war.
The lesson is directly applicable today, but Americans, Black and white, find it difficult to recognize the characters. Obama is Lyndon Johnson. National revitalization, including redress of historical African American grievances, is impossible unless military expenditures are dramatically reduced. But Obama is committed to putting 100,000 new pairs of Marine and Army “boots on the ground,” an expanded war in Afghanistan/Pakistan, a beefed up AFRICOM, and a generally bigger U.S. military footprint on the planet. This, in the midst of global economic collapse.
To compare Obama to MLK is insulting to the King legacy – yet, many remain silent when these comparisons (and other similar fawnings) occur. Obama does share some attributes with MLK – most obviously, both are excellent orators. Both are brilliant. Both have more understanding of racial injustice and white privilege in their little toe than G.W. has in his entire body. Yet, Obama IS not the champion for peace, non-violence, and equity that MLK was. Ironically, we are going against MLK’s call for a “color-blind” society when we act as if he is. What we are doing instead is acting as if his color makes him all the things so many of us hope he is. Further, the “touchy” issue of race is keeping many silent in fear a critical stance towards Obama would lead to accusations they are racist. Sadly, this fear is true.
We have become so wrapped up in the euphoria of Obama’s win and its symbolic meaning that we have forgot to take a harsh look at what really matters – NOT the win, but what he will do as president, NOT the color of his skin, but the character of his heart and mind. So far, I am troubled by what seems to be an extreme disconnect between his words and acts- he is charming, brilliant, passionate, and many other good things, but he is not the anti-empire progressive leader I crave. He is no MLK. He is no Coretta.
While I realize these assertions may anger many, I can’t remain silent about this. A colleague of mine shared that she is not critical of Obama in front of students as she fears she will be labeled racist, especially as a white woman. Yet, if progressive academics remain silent along with others working for social justice, our lives will continue to end at the hands of the imperialist corporatist war machine.
On this day, in honor of Martin Luther King, Junior and Coretta Scott King, I hope that you will find something that matters to NOT be silent about. I hope, more specifically, that people will speak their concerns about Obama’s worrying collusions with all those things that our marching the planet, and humanity, towards death.