Fredrick Harris is a professor of political science and the director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. He is the author of “The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics.”
When I was growing up in the 1970s in Atlanta — the birthplace of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the city where he is interred — we commemorated the civil rights leader quite differently from how we do today.
The remembrances took place on April 4, the anniversary of his assassination, not on his January birthday; after all, the King national holiday did not yet exist. And rather than focus on the March on Washington and King’s “I have a dream” speech, the city would emphasize his mission and message toward the end of his life. It was less a ritual of collective mourning than a reminder of the fight King was waging: a war against the triple evils of racism, poverty and militarism, reflected in a battle for the rights of low-wage garbage workers in Memphis, a movement against the Vietnam War and, nationally, the hope for a second march on Washington, one that would dramatize the plight of America’s poor.
On Monday, President Obama’s second inauguration and the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday will converge, making for great history and symbolism. The president is embracing that symbolism — swearing in on the Bibles of King and President Abraham Lincoln, and having Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, deliver the invocation. Of course, the greatest symbol is Obama; for many Americans, his rise reflects how we’ve overcome the racism King fought. As Interior Secretary Ken Salazar put it during the dedication of the King memorial on the Mall in October 2011, Obama is “the personification of [King’s] American dream.”
Yet, it is no small irony 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. And that the Baptist preacher from Georgia who stood for nonviolence would never have condoned the militaristic actions of a president whose escalated use of drone warfare kills innocents around the world.
Unfortunately, these aspects of King’s legacy have been eclipsed by a national holiday that commemorates the civil rights leader by asking Americans to participate in an important, but generic, day of public service. In one of his most moving yet rarely remembered sermons, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” delivered at the National Cathedralthe Sunday before his death, King left the nation with a vision of what it would take for real change to come to America, and it was more than public service.
“We are coming to demand that the government addresses itself to the problem of poverty,” King told the congregation. “It is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action.”
As inequality widens and more Americans fall into poverty, King’s call for direct action is no less true for Obama in 2013 than it was for President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Fresh from reelection to a second term, Obama has an opportunity to not only ceremoniously acknowledge the struggles of the past but to also directly address, through words and deeds, the unfinished agenda of erasing the vestiges of racial inequality.
Doing so would allow the president to truly embrace King’s legacy — a legacy that has been partially obfuscated at least since his birthday became a national holiday in 1986.
In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln spoke of the need to “bind up the nation’s wounds” after the Civil War. And though the Obama presidency has helped mend the wounds of division, racism continues to fester beneath the surface of American life. A ceremonial recognition of how far the country has come to address the legacy of racism is an important step, but it is not sufficient to remedy the persistence of racial inequality, which we see in stagnant poverty, disparate incarceration rates and educational gaps affecting African Americans.
The politics of recognition — the official acknowledgment of previously excluded groups in a society — and the need for social change are related but different challenges. If recognition is being achieved for black America as a whole, but structural barriers remain unchallenged for many blacks, then we are merely perpetuating inequality, despite the visible gains by some.
We are not a post-racial society, in which race no longer matters. At best, we are a post-racist society — in which formal legal barriers against African Americans and other minorities have been eliminated, but the legacy of those barriers endures.
Yet, in the collective national memory, King is often summed up by one passage from his 1963 “dream” speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The focus on these words, so celebrated by Americans of all political stripes, obscures the memory of the broader struggle that made the Obama presidency possible.
In the days leading up to Obama’s second inauguration, we’ve heard many comparisons between him and King, and it is easy to assume that the president is an extension of King’s legacy and the civil rights movement. For black America, in particular, Obama has already joined the pantheon of great African American leaders, alongside Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Malcolm X and, of course, King. He has joined their ranks not for his activism or his efforts to break down racial inequality, but for the symbolic weight of being the nation’s first black president.
The history and legacy of that president have yet to be written, yet to be set in stone. Not so with King, unfortunately. Like his granite image on the Mall, the civil rights leader’s memory seems immovable, stuck in 1963, with the March on Washington. As with so many of our national heroes, his ideas are no longer perceived to threaten the status quo — even though they do, or at least they should.
The most cherished passages from the “I have a dream” speech convey the spirit of America’s promise and the hope that one day the nation will live up to its creed. But we must never forget that the King on the Mall and the president in the White House are where memory fades and national mythology begins.
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