For once I tried to think ahead about a major anniversary, and I’m still casting about for original thoughts on what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.‘s 80th birthday.
Obviously, there’s the significance of MLK Day being followed by President Obama’s inauguration. That’s a connection so obvious that it needs to commentary. King had a dream, and while little white boys and little black girls aren’t playing hand in hand as often as we’d like, we’ve made progress. We elected a black president, and in no small part, that’s a result of the voting reforms Dr. King demanded.
It’s significant that the house Obama will live in was built by slave labor, that it wasn’t until 1901 that a black man was invited to eat dinner with the President there, and that a US Senator decried Booker T. Washington’s dinner in the White House by declaring “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they learn their place again.” For decades after, the South did all it could to crush its black populace, and Southern Senators did their part by blocking any action to intervene for civil rights.
Lyndon Johnson, 60 years later, often barely seemed more advanced than Senator Tillman. His pronunciation of “Negro” tended to slur towards “nigra,” and often well further toward Tillman’s epithet. He’d helped filibuster and kill civil rights legislation as a Senator.
But Martin Luther King, Jr., sat with Johnson in the White House. Later, after the violence in Selma, Johnson stood before Congress and swore “We shall overcome,” demanding civil rights legislation.
Then as now, the world was in turmoil. Johnson told Congress:
There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our Democracy in what is happening here tonight. For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great government–the government of the greatest nation on earth. Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country–to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man. In our time we have come to live with the moments of great crises. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues, issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression.
There is no cause for pride in Dr. King’s death, for the cowardly assassination that ended his quest to free America not only of the shackles of racial injustice, but from the far more subtle bonds of economic injustice. We can take pride in what he achieved in his abbreviated life, and in how we have built on that great legacy. We can be proud that a man who could not have voted in many states before Martin Luther King, Jr., whose parents couldn’t have married in many states, is now preparing to lead the nation in its ongoing clash over race, war, and depression.
Speaking words we may well hear again in President Obama’s inaugural address, Johnson insisted: “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans–not as Democrats or Republicans; we’re met here as Americans to solve that problem.”
The climax of Johnson’s speech, though was this passage:
What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
And we shall overcome.
What we celebrated today was a movement that continues to strive for this equality. What we celebrate tomorrow is a different movement, one which achieved a narrower goal from that grand agenda.
Putting a black man in the White House does not secure Dr. King’s vision.
Dr. King sought a broader revolution in our social fabric. We saw glimpses of it in the campaign, moments when political debates didn’t revolve around the race of the candidates, and where we were color-blind with respect to that one man for a little while. But those moments were often fleeting, and the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy couldn’t be ignored.
And so, as Dr. King told the Memphis sanitation workers:
Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.
While he did not, in fact, live to see that better nation, we may all yet do so. The sniper who killed Dr. King the morning after that speech did not destroy the dream. A dream about society cannot be destroyed by one man’s hand or one man’s death, any more than it can be fulfilled by one man, even one President. And so we gathered today around the country to make our world better. And so we gather tomorrow to celebrate a great man’s ascension to the presidency. And so we must gather again the day after to carry out the commission given us by Dr. King.