Obama needs to be King-like, not King-lite

Tavis Smiley is host of the “Tavis Smiley” show on PBS, Public Radio International’s “The Tavis Smiley Show” and “Tavis Talks” on BlogTalkRadio.

Since the White House announced that President Obama will speak to the nation on Wednesday from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I have been asked the same questions again and again:

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Is it appropriate for the president to occupy that sacred space? Does Obama have the moral authority to speak where King spoke? Does anyone?

My honest answer to these questions: I don’t know. But here is what I do know. The future of our democracy is inextricably linked to how seriously we take King’s legacy. A legacy of unarmed truth and unconditional love. A legacy of brilliant prose and prophetic witness.

The president’s decision to honor the march is proper and commendable. But when he stands where King stood and delivers a speech of his own, he inevitably invites comparisons between his words and King’s. I hope Obama rises to the challenge to be truly King-like, not just King-lite. His speech cannot be full of great sound bites but devoid of sound public policy.

Obama’s election in 2008 was a good down payment on King’s dream of racial equality, but it did not fulfill the dream. Instead of lecturing black audiences about personal responsibility, as he so often has, now is the time for the president to bear witness to the unrelenting pain and suffering of his most loyal constituency — a constituency still denied true economic freedom by institutional and structural barriers that have yet to be addressed, much less alleviated.

Following the recent not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, the president did finally give voice to the struggle for human dignity that black men in particular endure almost daily. “There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me,” Obama said. And the decision this month by Attorney General Eric Holder to no longer seek mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses — citing the “shameful” racial disparities in sentencing — is smart public policy.

But we have known for 40 years that mandatory minimums are a bad idea. Why so long? Could not an administration committed to social justice have done this in the first term?

The unsettling truth is that during the Obama era, black America has fallen even further behind. The African American unemployment rate, for instance, remains stubbornly and disproportionately high at 12.6 percent, compared with the national rate of 7.4 percent. And while private-sector jobs are experiencing a slight uptick, the lack of public-sector jobs is suffocating black livelihoods. Sadly, a few black chief executives notwithstanding, race still matters in the private sector. Education is not the great equalizer. I know too many black Ivy League graduates whose degrees cannot close this gap, and heaven help you if you’re applying for a private-sector job with a “black-sounding” name. Researchers have found that these applicants receive up to 50 percent fewer callbacks than applicants with “white-sounding” names.

Black misery is the fierce urgency of now. Do we want history to record that black folk fared even worse under the first black president? I certainly do not.

We all understand that Obama is a politician and King was a prophet. But does that mean that the president, even with the structural and political constraints of his high office, cannot speak more truth?

I have often wondered what the bust of King in the Oval Office would whisper to the president when he’s working alone late at night. The symbolism of King’s presence in the White House is powerful; symbols do matter. But the substance of his “I Have a Dream” speech is being ignored half a century later.

For me, the brilliance of King’s speech was his unique ability to unapologetically rebuke the nation for its sins yet still present America a vision for how she could be greater. He did this not by trying to transcend who he was — a black Baptist preacher — but by authentically embracing his full citizenship as a black American.

This is why it’s so troubling whenever Obama says that he is not “the president of black America,” but “the president of all America.” Actually, he’s both. He would never say that he is not the president of gay, Latino or Jewish America. So why the defensive posture when it comes to his fellow black citizens?

Sociologist William Julius Wilson recently highlighted the opportunity Obama has in Wednesday’s speech. “If you don’t have skills or a decent education in this global economy, your chances for mobility are limited,” Wilson told The Washington Post. “The problem is especially acute for low-skilled black males, and many turn to crime and end up in prison, which further marginalizes them and decreases their employment opportunities. It would be great if the president raised such issues when he comments on the March on Washington, because I strongly believe he is fully aware of them.”

After the march of 1963, King wrote his third book, “Why We Can’t Wait.” In it, he admonishes those who want his people to “quietly endure, silently suffer and patiently wait.” He also warned America, in his speech at the march, against taking the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

It’s no secret that 50 years later, despite all the progress we have made, class and race are still undeniable factors holding back too many fellow citizens of all colors and creeds, but disproportionately black Americans. As I have said many times, when you make black America better, you make all of America better.

This president is fond of making history. Well, sometimes the best way to make history is to let history come to you. In truth, the present is history. It’s abundantly clear by the staging of Obama’s address that the White House sees this historic moment as an opportunity to burnish the president’s legacy.

But if Obama is to be transformational and not just transactional, a statesman and not just another politician, a thermostat and not just a thermometer, then it’s time for him to use his power to help regulate the temperature of our society and not just settle for recording the temperature of public opinion. It’s time to take some risks. To stop playing it safe in the second term. To tell the truth about the suffering in America that’s being rendered invisible simply because we choose not to see it.

Poverty is threatening our democracy; it is now a matter of national security. As King said, war is still the enemy of the poor. Our education system, in many ways, is still separate and unequal. As King lived under constant surveillance, our government seems now to be spying on all of us.

In the end, it’s about what kind of nation and what kind of people we choose to be. There can be no distinction between what we believe and what we do. It’s time for more than just celebrating King with our words. It’s time to start emulating him with our deeds.

Twitter: @TavisSmiley

Read more from Outlook:

What would MLK Jr. march for today?

Five myths about the March on Washington

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