First Black President: From Hope to History

Honoring King on the Eve of Obama’s Inauguration

by Ewuare X. Osayande

Speech delivered at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Trenton, NJ, January 19, 2009.

We are living in history. We are bearing witness to an experience that so many of our forebears only dreamed of, hoped for, wished for, worked for, struggled for, died for. The election of Barack Obama as the United States of America’s first Black president is a watershed moment in American history. This moment will be remembered in history as significant as the eradication of slavery, as the Civil Rights Movement itself. So it is most fitting that on this day of days, this day when we come to honor and remember the life and legacy of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, that we should consider this historic moment and understand its meaning for our times.

It was just 200 years ago that African people in this nation were enslaved. Indeed the very White House that the Obama’s will call home as this nation’s first family was built with the labor of enslaved Africans. Laws were instituted throughout this nation’s history to insure our perpetual servitude and inequality. And now, tomorrow, a man bearing a name that is rooted in the red soil of Africa will take the oath of office as this nation’s 44th president.

Were it not for the brave agitation and activism of African Americans such as Harriet Tubman, David Walker, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Dr. WEB Dubois, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Queen Mother Moore, Booker T. Washington, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Clark, Bayard Rustin, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and the millions of others who sacrificed their very lives to bring a greater measure of justice and freedom to the African American community, this day would not have come. They now exist as the great cloud of witnesses that look down upon us this day with smiles as wide and bright as the sun itself.

It has been forty years since King was assassinated and the demise of the Civil Rights Movement. It is remarkable that within one generation African Americans have gone from achieving the right to vote to voting an African American into the highest office in the land.

Throughout this nation, there are many that now believe that racism is no longer an issue for Black people given the election. They believe that we have overcome. Certainly, the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States is a major step forward in American social progress. But we would miss the meaning of this moment and dishonor the legacy of all those who sacrificed to now proclaim that we have somehow reached a racial nirvana. For one, we should never define progress by the exception. Rather, it should be defined by the rule. And the rule for many Black people and other people of color is dictated by the ever-present reality of racism and the threat of violation to our rights and very personhood that even Obama himself cannot escape.

Dr. King responded to a similar reaction after the passage of the Voting Rights bill when he said, “I am appalled that some people feel the civil rights struggle is over because we have a 1964 civil rights bill with ten titles and a voting rights bill. Over and over again people ask, ‘What else do you want?’ They feel that everything is all right. Well, let them look around at our big cities.”

Today, some forty years after King spoke those words, in one of our big cities, the barbarity of racism has reared its ugly head once again.

Oscar Grant, a 22 year-old African American father, in Oakland, CA this past New Year’s Day was killed by Johannes Mehserle, a white cop for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. It is a story that we have heard too many times. A young Black man is shot in the course of being accosted by the police. In this case, Grant was already being detained by two officers: one officer with his knees on his shoulders, another straddling his legs as he lay face down on the subway platform. It was at that point that Mehserle stood up, pulled his gun and shot a bullet directly into Grant’s back. The officers then finished hand-cuffing Grant as he lay there bleeding to death.

The video-taped footage of eye-witnesses of the killing clearly shows that there was no gun on the young man, that there was no apparent threat to any of the officers at the scene. In fact, it is one of the most heinous acts of police murder ever caught on tape. Oakland would rise in insurrectionary flames the following day. Currently, Mehserle has been arrested and charged with second-degree murder.

Interestingly enough, soon after King made those aforementioned remarks, Watts would also go up in flames after a 22 year old Black man would be assaulted by the LAPD. With the smoke still rising from the city, King would proclaim that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

How is it that, on the eve of a new era in American politics, racism in its most barbaric form can still exist? This is the kind of bitter duality that has characterized the African American experience in this country. Despite our hope for change and longing for “justice for all,” America’s reality has delivered less than its promise.

It is appalling that 40 years after the Civil Rights Movement, an African American man can still be shot in cold-blood by those sworn to “protect and serve.” It is appalling that Megan Williams, a young African American woman, can be kidnapped and tortured for over a week in a country that can elect a Black man president.

It is this kind of bitter duplicity that will cause otherwise well-meaning people to now turn to Black children locked in the impossibility of poverty and say to them, “See, even you can now grow up to be President of the United States,” and yet will do nothing to provide the necessary support and resources to insure that possibility can be truly realized. Empty hope has the same effect as an empty stomach. In order to be satisfied, this hope must be filled with the substance of true possibility.

This bitter duality is born of a brutal denial. Only a nation in such denial can give 700 billion dollars to the wealthiest of its people while the rest of the nation staggers under the weight of an economic recession. Only an America in denial can watch its families scammed out of their homes, then turn around and bail out the very corporations that did the scamming.

King’s words work to break this nation out of its denial. In his last presidential speech given to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference on August 16, 1967, King moved his concern from helping the poor to challenging the economic structure itself. “There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised ... Who owns the oil? ... Who owns the iron ore? ...Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water? These are the questions that must be asked.”

Are we courageous enough to ask the same questions of our nation today? Certainly these are the central questions of our time given the bailout and the state of the economy. Who is benefiting from the government’s hand-outs? Who is suffering from the corporate corruption? What does all of this have to do with our government’s investment in war?

My heart cries for the Palestinian people caught between the Mediterranean Sea and a hostile regime. Yet despite the atrocious acts being committed against them, despite the bombs, missiles and bulldozers that destroy their homes, national and international condemnation and blame is laid at their feet for actions that have been deemed terrorist. Yet, there is nothing that the Palestinian people will ever be able to do that would cause the nation of Israel to cease to exist. The same cannot be said about the actions of the state of Israel against a people that exist without the right to exist, without the right to choose their own leaders (we call that a democracy), without the human right of self-determination and the right to raise a flag and call yourself a nation. The actions of the Palestinians are the actions of an impoverished people against the massive artillery of the 5th largest military state in the world. The actions of the Palestinians seek nothing more than to send a message to their adversary and to the world. Just like the people of Oakland. No, we may not agree with their methodology - riots and suicide bombings - but we must understand that their methods are born of survival and a caustic sense of desperation.

King would speak to America today as he did yesterday. He would condemn this nation’s actions of “pre-emptive strikes” in its decision to invade Iraq. Such actions on this nation’s part have now set in motion the pre-emptive military actions of other nations like Russia and Israel.

In his speech, “Time to Break Silence,” King reminds us that our overriding loyalties ought to be with the oppressed. “This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voice-less, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”

King’s analysis strikes deep into the heart of American imperialism. “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation.” Where are we today? “We will be marching ... and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons [and daughters] of the living God.”

The thirst for justice can never be obliterated by bombs. The desire for freedom can never be shot down. In fact, such actions only work to strengthen a people’s resolve for self-determination.

So as we look to the presidency of Barack Obama and this new era of American politics, it is easy to believe that King would be pleased and satisfied. But a closer reading of King’s conviction would give us pause to that impulse. An America that does not insure the dignity of work for its entire people is not a just America. An America that continues to defend the mistreatment and brutality of its citizens of color is not a just America. An America that initiates international conflict and justifies war is an unjust America. Is an America that must be challenged to change. We must work to insure that this new era of American politics is also a new era of American policy!

And to those of us who are African American caught up in the magnitude of this historic moment, who seek a sense of final satisfaction and acceptance as Americans, King cautions us when he says, “However deeply American Negroes are caught in the struggle to be at last at home in our homeland of the United States, we cannot ignore the larger world house in which we are also dwellers. Equality with whites will not solve the problem of either whites or Negroes if it means equality in a world society stricken by poverty and in a universe doomed to extinction by war.”

What King presents for us is a principled personhood. In his very person, we can bear witness to the lived expression of moral conviction in all its full humanity. This is why he is important and valuable to us now and forever more. Not as an icon, or symbol, or an apparition frozen in time, but as a living, breathing expression of love in pursuit of justice and the promise of peace.

What Barack Obama achieved, he achieved because of the actions of millions of Americans from all walks of life who were ready for change. What that change will look like is yet to be defined. But let us be clear, the hope placed in Obama and his incoming administration echoes back to the work that was started in the Civil Rights Movement. What they accomplished has made the miracle of this moment possible. But just as the Sixties taught us, it took a King and a movement to move the hand of the president to sign those bills into law. It took a King and a movement to move the conscious of this country closer to social equality. So, we too, must remain vigilant. As we hold up Barack Obama and support him in what we know will be a most challenging first term, we must always be on the ready when the times call for us to move our president and our nation even more toward justice.

Yes, we have every right to believe that change can come to America. Indeed, we have helped to bring change through our vote. Now let our hope for change be rooted in a resolve to work for fundamental and lasting change. In that final speech to the SCLC, “Where Do We Go From Here?” King spoke of having a “divine dissatisfaction.”

And so today I say, let us be dissatisfied until the threat of police brutality and racial terrorism no longer haunts the daily lives of people of color in this nation. Let us be dissatisfied until every child is receiving a first class education without regard to their zip code. Let us be dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied until the families of those very children can live in homes they own full of comfort and peace, without fear of eviction. Let us be dissatisfied until every American has the right to universal health care. Let us be dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied until our gay brothers and lesbian sisters can experience the full equality of love sanctioned by the state. Let us be dissatisfied until all war has been vanquished by the global desire for peace. Let us be dissatisfied! Let us be dissatisfied until the bitter duality of racism and social progress has collapsed into the ever-present reality of justice for all. Let us be dissatisfied like King was dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied like Fannie Lou Hamer was dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied like the prophet Amos was dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied until justice rolls down like running waters and righteousness as a mighty flowing stream.

Ewuare X. Osayande (www.osayande.org) is a political activist and author of several books including Black Anti-Ballistic Missives: Resisting War/Resisting Racism. He is co-founder and director of POWER (People Organized Working to Eradicate Racism) an initiative that educates and empowers persons and organizations interested and involved in movements for social justice. He can be reached at OsayandeSpeaks@hotmail.com.