Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Even if Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama didn’t utter Martin Luther King Jr.’s name once in his Democratic presidential acceptance speech, the legacy of King and the civil rights movement would hang heavy over Denver’s Invesco Field. Obama’s meticulously scripted decision to break convention tradition and give his acceptance speech in an open air site on the 45th anniversary of the March on Washington dispels the myth that Obama is a post civil rights generation African-American politician.
To his credit Obama never bought into the myth. It would be hard for him to anyway. He has frequently praised King and the civil right movement, and has said that he has read and studied closely King’s writings and speeches. But even if he hadn’t read a word of King’s speeches, Obama is not just the symbolic embodiment of the civil rights struggle, but an embodiment of the still unfinished business of the civil rights movement. That’s with one added caveat and a risk. The caveat is that the civil rights challenges that King faced and that he so eloquently spoke of in his I Have a Dream speech 45 years ago are even more complex forty five years after the March on Washington. The risk is the great temptation to see Obama’s historic candidacy as the end not the continuation of the civil rights battles.
The checklist of problems that King faced and Obama now faces include astronomically high unemployment among young blacks, gaping racial disparities in the criminal justice system, resegregation of neighborhoods and schools, rampant housing discrimination, racial glass ceilings in corporate hiring and promotions, black family instability among the black poor, police abuse, racial profiling, and racially motivated hate crimes.
There are challenges that King didn’t have to deal with or were barely issues a half century ago. One of these is that race problems in America are no longer exclusively a black and white problem. That’s because blacks are no longer America’s top minority. Latinos are. Immigration reform, English Only, and the fight for political empowerment are the new civil rights concerns.
Obama also faces a glaring problem that King had only begun to wrestle with in his last days. That's the plight of the urban black poor. As America unraveled in the 1960s in the anarchy of urban riots, campus takeovers, and anti-war street battles, the civil rights movement and its leaders fell apart, too. Many of them fell victim to their own success and failure. When they broke down the racially restricted doors of corporations, government agencies, and universities, middle class blacks, not the poor, rushed headlong through them. More than four decades later there are now two black Americas. The fat, rich, and comfortable black America of Oprah Winfrey, Robert Johnson, Bill Cosby, Condoleezza Rice, Denzil Washington and the legions of millionaire black athletes and entertainers, businesspersons and professionals. They have grabbed a big slice of America's pie.
The black America of the poor is fragmented and politically rudderless. Lacking competitive technical skills and professional training, and shunned by many middle-class black leaders, they have been shoved even further to the outer margins of American society. The chronic problems of gang, and drug violence, family breakdown, police abuse, the soaring incarceration rate of young black males, the mounting devastation of HIV and AIDS disease in black communities, abysmally failing inner city public schools have made things even worse for them.
Then there’s the political rise of, and influence of black conservatives, the black evangelicals, and the rancorous internal fights among blacks over gay marriage, gay rights, and abortion have tormented, perplexed, and forced civil rights leaders, who are mostly liberal Democrats to confront their own gender and political biases. They have tried to strike a halting, tenuous balance between their liberalism and the social conservatism of many blacks.
In his drive for the White House Obama has had to walk a tight line between those who demand that he say and do more about civil rights, and those who watch hawk like for any hint that an Obama White House will tilt toward minorities. That would have rendered his campaign DOA on arrival.
Obama’s decision to peg his acceptance speech to the anniversary of the March on Washington is not mere showy campaign symbolism. It stands as a fitting tribute to the civil rights movement that challenged the nation to make King’s dream of justice and equality a reality. Obama faced that challenge as a community organizer, civil rights attorney, during his stints in the Illinois legislature and in the Senate. He’ll face that same challenge in the White House. And that can hardly be called post civil rights.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How the GOP Can Keep the White House, How the Democrats Can Take it Back (Middle Passage Press, August 2008).