The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cornel West channels Martin Luther King Jr. to criticize Obama

Inside West's new book, "The Radical King"

President Obama at the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on Oct. 16, 2011. (The Washington Post)

“I hope he’s a progressive Lincoln. I plan … to put pressure on him.”

That was Cornel West speaking in November 2008, just days after Barack Obama won the White House. Despite supporting Obama early in the campaign, West has spent the past six years relentlessly, often predictably, exerting that pressure from the president’s left flank. During the first term, West decried Obama as a “black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” And after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., West said that the president’s words “reek of political calculation rather than moral conviction.”

Now the philosopher and activist has edited “The Radical King,” an anthology of Martin Luther King Jr.’s essays, speeches and other writings, totaling some two dozen examples of what West describes as King’s “anti-imperial, anti-colonial, anti-racist, and democratic socialist sentiments.” In the book, published Jan. 13 by Beacon Press, West takes Obama to task for failing to live up to the MLK legacy, and even speculates on how King might regard the record of the first black president:

Needless to say, the rich legacy of the radical King in the age of Obama celebrates the symbolic breakthrough of a black president and keeps track of the right-wing backlash against him. Yet the bailout for banks, record profits for Wall Street, and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable rather than mortgage relief for homeowners, jobs with a living wage, and investment in education, infrastructure, and housing reveal the plutocratic domination of the Obama administration. The dream of the radical King for the first black president surely was not a Wall Street presidency, drone presidency, and surveillance presidency with a vanishing black middle class, devastated black working class, and desperate black poor people clinging to fleeting symbols and empty rhetoric.
I shall never forget the first question I asked Barack Obama when he called to solicit my support: “What is the relation of your presidential politics to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr?” He replied — in hours of dialogue — that the relation was strong. And I agreed to lend critical support. After sixty-five events, from Iowa to Ohio, in 2008, I knew that most of his advisers were not part of the King legacy. And Obama’s betrayal of what the radical King stands for became undeniable.
Sadly, the damage done by Obama apologists — often for money, access, and status — is immeasurable and nearly unforgivable. For the first time in American history, black citizens are the most pro-war in American society. Black churches are among the weakest in prison ministry — even given the disproportionately high percentage of black prisoners. Black schools are under attack from profiteering enterprises. Forty percent of black children live in poverty. … In other words, the Obama apologists who hide and conceal Wall Street crimes, imperial crimes, new Jim Crow crimes, and surveillance lies in order to protect the first black president have much to account for.
— Cornel West’s introduction to “The Radical King”

MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry has suggested that some of West’s grievances with Obama are more about ego than ideology — “I can tell the difference between a substantive criticism and a personal attack,” she wrote in the Nation in 2011. Yet other black intellectuals have argued, perhaps less stridently than West, that Obama has failed to live up to the legacy of the civil rights era. Fredrick Harris, director of the Center on African-American Politics and Society at Columbia University, argued in his 2012 book “The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics” (Oxford University Press) that Obama’s ascent has marked a decline of a traditional civil-rights style politics. “It is no small irony,” Harris wrote in The Washington Post for Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2013, “that the anti-inequality movement that cleared the path for Obama’s presidency would find its supposed personification in a chief executive who has spoken less about poverty and race than any Democratic president in a generation.”

In August 2011, shortly before the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was inaugurated in Washington, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a veteran of the March on Washington, also imagined what King would say about Obama’s presidency:

As a minister, never elected to any public office, Dr. King would tell this young leader that it is his moral obligation to use his power and influence to help those who have been left out and left behind. … Dr. King would say that a Nobel Peace Prize winner can and must find a way to demonstrate that he is a man of peace, a man of love and non-violence. … He would say that Obama’s election represents a significant step toward laying down the burden of race, but that this task is not yet complete. The election of 2008 was a major down payment on Dr. King’s dream, but it did not fulfill it. …
Dr. King would tell this young president to do what he can to end discrimination based on race, color, religious faith and sexual orientation. He would say that righteous work makes its own way. There is no need to put a finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. There is no need to match each step to the latest opinion poll. The people of this country recognize when a leader is trying to do what is right. Take a stand, he would say. Go with your gut. Let the people of this country see that you are fighting for them and they will have your back.

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