TRENDING NEWS: Monday, Jan 19th, 2015
A President and a King
BY JELANI COBB [The New Yorker]
June of 2009, when an aura of idealism still attended Barack Obama’s Presidency, he delivered a speech at Cairo University that was intended to recalibrate American relations in the region. He had already offered a qualified overture in his Inaugural Address—“We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”—and the Cairo speech elucidated a vision of American soft power and democratic progress. Some listeners also noted a bit of historical jujitsu. In making a case for nonviolence in the region, the President remarked:
For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves, and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end.
Obama elided a few examples to make his argument: the more than six hundred thousand Civil War deaths in the United States; the well-documented though lesser-known history of armed black self-defense in the early twentieth century, which, in the eyes of many, served to make the nonviolent movement a palatable alternative; the armed resistance to apartheid that, for a time, counted even Nelson Mandela among its numbers. But fidelity to the historical record was not the key point.
There are more than six hundred and fifty streets named for Martin Luther King, Jr., in the United States, but, perhaps more significant, there are streets, parks, and monuments dedicated to him in Australia, Austria, France, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Senegal, South Africa, and Zambia—a reminder that not only American authority but also American contradictions play out on the world stage. Cairo represented a moment in which the nation’s history of racism, long its most obvious moral contradiction and the so-called Achilles’ heel of American foreign policy, was, in the hands of a black President, an element to be used to America’s advantage. Obama’s mere existence was a brief for a kind of American exceptionalism. The credibility of his words derived less from the office he held than from his affiliation with the nonviolent movement that had made it possible for him to attain it.
From the moment Obama emerged as a serious Presidential contender, he has been viewed as a symbol of the successes of King and the movement that he led. Early in the campaign, when some African-Americans still harbored doubts about Obama’s identity, he travelled to Selma to mark the anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march and to talk explicitly about the ways in which the movement had made it possible for the union between his black Kenyan father and his white American mother to exist legally. His nomination, at the Democratic Convention in August of 2008, coincided with the forty-fifth anniversary of King’s “Dream” speech. After the election, cartoonists deployed King in all manner of celebratory endorsement, and, after the Inauguration, Obama placed a bust of King in the Oval Office. This week, he will deliver his sixth State of the Union address, as he did his first inaugural, a day after the holiday that commemorates King.
Yet six years in the White House have vastly complicated Obama’s relationship to King. They are two of the three African-Americans who have won the Nobel Peace Prize. (The first, Ralph Bunche, was awarded the prize in 1950, for negotiating a truce between Jews and Arabs in 1949.) When King accepted his award, in 1964, he began his speech by questioning his worthiness as a recipient, since the movement he led had not yet achieved interracial peace:
I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.
Obama opened his acceptance speech, in 2009, on a similarly self-effacing note, stating that he had barely begun his Presidency and his achievements were few. But then he departed from King’s reasoning. There is such a thing as just war, he said, under circumstances in which force is used in self-defense, is proportional to the threat, and, “whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.” He continued:
I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world.
A moral crusader and a Commander-in-Chief grapple with different prerogatives. King was never tasked with national defense; Obama’s election was contingent on a belief that he could keep Americans safe. Some observers nevertheless find it difficult to square elements of Obama’s foreign policy—drone warfare and its civilian casualties—not only with King’s concept of civilization but with the President’s own criteria for just warfare. Cornel West railed against the decision to use King’s Bible at Obama’s second swearing-in. “The righteous indignation of a Martin Luther King,” he said, “becomes a moment in political calculation.” Still, the King who denounced the triple evils of militarism, racism, and materialism would likely hail this week’s address, in which the President is expected to touch upon normalizing relations with Cuba, immigration reform, and providing free education for students at community colleges—along with the Administration’s efforts to prevent voter suppression, the cause that animated the Selma campaign, fifty years ago.
Beneath all this lies the irony that, nearly six years after the Cairo speech, Obama is less able to deploy the moral capital of civil rights, at least in the Middle East, not only because he is now established as the face of American authority but also because many of the battles that King fought have still not been resolved. Racism remains an Achilles’ heel. The protests in Ferguson, New York, and beyond were watched by a global audience, and, as during the Cold War, America’s domestic troubles become fodder for a morally compromised foreign power to deflect attention from its own failings. Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei took to Twitter to highlight the seeming contradiction that such actions were taking place under a black President. He tweeted, “Racial discrimination’s still a dilemma in US. Still ppl are unsecure for having dark skins. The way police treat them confirms it.” In spite of Obama’s debt to the civil-rights movement, the ideal of American exceptionalism is only as valid as the standing of people who have just as often been seen as exceptions to America