Obama’s Debt To Martin Luther King's Legacy

Barack Obama, Sr


Gordon Campbell on Obama’s debt to the other, hidden legacy of Martin Luther King

As Barack Obama wakes up for the first time as President of the United States, he is starting out from a pretty re-assuring position : sky high approval ratings, a huge majority professing they will have patience with him in waiting for solutions, and an AP story that he has already circulated a draft order putting a freeze on any prosecutions at Guantanamo, with an intention to close down the facility within a year. Oh, and there is this extremely romantic series of photographs of Michelle and Barack Obama taken during their big day.

On the downside? Yes, there’s already a downside. The treatment of the thousands of people who slaved (word chosen deliberately) on Obama’s campaign and got tickets in return to attend the inauguration sounds shameful.

After standing in line in a cavernous tunnel with their tickets for up to four hours, many thousands of former Obama workers were denied entry and told to go home. Hopefully, as Marc Lynch says, this will not be not a symbol of how the Obama presidency will treat the activists that put him in power – ‘thrown out into the cold, shunted into a dismal and dank tunnel, abandoned without any communication, and ultimately locked out of the show.’ Also, for all the symbolic attention being paid to the Martin Luther King legacy, Juan Cole has brilliantly shown just how much of MLK’s actual worldview has been omitted from the historical significance now being given to Obama’s ascension to power.

Fittingly, in recent days, we have heard a lot about King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech from 1963. The fact of Obama’s presidency has been justly celebrated as a measure of just how far the country has travelled since the civil rights era. True, though given the rates of black imprisonment, I wouldn’t want to be too glib about the significance just yet. The interesting thing about Cole’s analysis is that the civil rights dimension was only half of King’s political worldview. As it has elevated him to sainthood, America has resolutely stripped King of his political radicalism – as expressed in the strong links that King saw between civil rights at home, and anti-colonialism abroad. As Cole says :

But there was another King, the critic of the whole history of European colonialism in the global South, who celebrated the independence movements that led to decolonization in the decades after World War II. The anti-imperial King is the exact opposite of the Neoconservatives who set US policy in the early twenty-first century. Barack Obama, who inherits King’s civil rights legacy and is also burdened with the neo-imperialism of the George W. Bush era, has some crucial choices to make about whether he will heed the other King, or whether he will get roped into the previous administration’s neo-colonial project simply because it is the status quo from which he will begin his tenure as commander in chief.

King’s anti-colonialism stance was not some mere nod to the liberal fashions of the day. A genuine history of MLK and the US civil rights movement ( and Barack Obama’s own family history) has to acknowledge how firmly the civil rights and anti-colonial struggles were interwoven. The Baptist Minister who traveled to Africa and who celebrated (in the town square at Accra in 1957) the first expressions of African independence, also brought back home with him the lessons about human dignity and freedom. In describing Kwame Nkrumah’s inauguration in Ghana, King even invoked the same words from the old spiritual – ‘Free at last, great God, free at last ! – that he was to use six years later in his “ I Have a Dream’ speech at Lincoln Memorial.

At the very same time, and among the US scholarships given to Africans ( to ensure that the emerging leadership of those newly independent nations were not lost to communism ) was one awarded to a young Kenyan called Barack Obama, the father of the future president. As Cole says, Obama expressly referred to this linkage – though Obama reversed the chain of influence – in a speech that he gave in a southern church two years ago. Obama said then –

‘You see, my Grandfather was a cook to the British in Kenya. Grew up in a small village and all his life, that’s all he was — a cook and a house boy. And that’s what they called him, even when he was 60 years old. They called him a house boy. They wouldn’t call him by his last name.

Sound familiar?

He had to carry a passbook around because Africans in their own land, in their own country, at that time, because it was a British colony, could not move about freely. They could only go where they were told to go. They could only work where they were told to work.

Yet something happened back here in Selma, Alabama. Something happened in Birmingham that sent out what Bobby Kennedy called, “Ripples of hope all around the world.” Something happened when a bunch of women decided they were going to walk instead of ride the bus after a long day of doing somebody else’s laundry, looking after somebody else’s children. When men who had PhD’s decided that’s enough and we’re going to stand up for our dignity. That sent a shout across oceans so that my grandfather began to imagine something different for his son. His son, who grew up herding goats in a small village in Africa could suddenly set his sights a little higher and believe that maybe a black man in this world had a chance.

What happened in Selma, Alabama and Birmingham also stirred the conscience of the nation. It worried folks in the White House who said, “You know, we’re battling Communism. How are we going to win hearts and minds all across the world? If right here in our own country, John, we’re not observing the ideals set forth in our Constitution, we might be accused of being hypocrites. So the Kennedys decided we’re going to do an air lift. We’re going to go to Africa and start bringing young Africans over to this country and give them scholarships to study so they can learn what a wonderful country America is.

This young man named Barack Obama got one of those tickets and came over to this country. He met this woman whose great great-great-great-grandfather had owned slaves; but she had a good idea there was some craziness going on because they looked at each other and they decided that we know that the world as it has been it might not be possible for us to get together and have a child. There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks are willing to march across a bridge. So they got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born. So don’t tell me I don’t have a claim on Selma, Alabama. Don’t tell me I’m not coming home to Selma, Alabama. ‘

What goes around, comes round. Barack Obama’s whole life and intellectual tradition you see, could not be more opposed to the neo-colonial project that the Bush administration has sought to impose on the Middle East, or to the neo-colonial ambitions being pursued by a resurgent Russia. It could not be more opposed to the apartheid-like solutions that the Israelis are imposing on Gaza and the West Bank, or to the corrupt puppet regime that the US been supporting in Afghanistan. As President, Obama will not only have to be true to the wider worldview of Martin Luther King – he will need to be true to himself.