Senator Barack Obama and the Paradox of Dr. King
by Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
On August 28, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the greatest speeches ever - what has now become known as the "I Have a Dream" speech. Forty-five years later to the very day, Senator Barack Hussein Obama became the first African-American to accept the presidential nomination of a major political party in America.
On this day, many see Senator Obama's historic accomplishment as evidence of the fulfillment of Dr. King's dream. "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. I have a dream today!" According to The New York Times, Dr. King's daughter, Bernice King, declared that Senator Obama's nomination is part of her father's dream, citing Obama's nomination as, "the acceptance of a Democratic presidential nominee, decided not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character." This is, in fact, evidence that America has made progress on the long and difficult road toward racial tolerance and acceptance. However, there are still many miles left to travel.
The interesting paradox of Senator Obama's historic nomination and Dr. King's speech is that while Democratic candidate Obama is the beneficiary and living evidence of the realization of the "dream," President Obama will have to address the current realities of systemic racism and personal prejudice that have resulted in continued disparity between African- Americans and Euro-Americans in much the same way as they did in 1963.
The "dream" reference actually comes toward the end of the speech. As Dr. King was close to ending his nine-minute delivery, the great gospel singer Ms. Mahalia Jackson was standing behind him and said, "... tell them about the dream Martin ... tell them about the dream...." With that prompting, Dr. King left the prepared text and began, "... so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream." It's important to understand that he spoke of the dream in the context of a horrific reality for "Negroes" and the poor. What makes the "dream" significant is its juxtaposition against America's reality, failures and systemic oppression of its own citizens.
Dr. King opened the speech with scathing indictments of America. "... we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land." That was no dream; that was the reality for Negroes in 1963 and a clear indictment of the social conditions in America at that time. Unfortunately, in 2008 those social conditions continue to exist for too many Americans.
Systemic racism manifests itself today as a reality for children who languish in inner-city schools, resulting in excessive high school dropout rates, parents who lose their jobs and their homes, and those unjustly incarcerated in American jails and prisons. In 2008, African-American men are incarcerated at a rathe rate of Euro-Americans; an African-American family's income is little more than half that of a similar Euro-American family's income, and African-Americans continue to deal with "Driving While Black" and imbalances in health care.
Personal prejudice and hatred are also still alive and well and living in America. While many marveled and wept during Senator Obama's historic acceptance speech, three men had been arrested two days before in an alleged plot to kill Senator Obama. According to investigators, they had expressed plans to shoot him from a high sniper position at the Invesco Field at Mile High stadium using a "rifle - sighted at 750 yards" simply because they felt that a black man should not hold elected office. Various guns and equipment were seized by the police in the arrest of Tharin Robert Gartrell, 28; Nathan Johnson, 32, and Shawn Robert Adolf, 33. Also, investigators state, the men may have ties to Sons of Silence, an outlaw biker group, and are believed to have connections with white supremacists.
Fortunately, prosecutors insist that Senator Obama was not in any real danger from the three individuals. Senator Obama has been under heightened Secret Service protection since May of last year after a series of credible death threats were received by authorities. These arrests and threats are evidence of the personal hatred that still exists in the hearts and minds of more Americans than we care to count.
In his acceptance speech, Senator Obama told America that the time for change is now and, "What the nay-sayers don't understand is that this election has never been about me. It's been about you." He went on to say, "Change happens because the American people demand it - because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time."
Senator Obama is correct. The time for change is now, and change is not easy. It can make people very uncomfortable, especially when the agent of change is an African-American man. Senator Obama is also correct when he says that this election is not about him, it's about what he represents and, unfortunately, that continues to make some people in America very uncomfortable.
According to July's CBS/New York Times poll, 26 percent of Euro-Americans said they have been victims of discrimination. Twenty-seven percent said too much has been made of the problems facing African-American people. Twenty-four percent said the country isn't ready to elect an African-American president. Five percent of Euro-American voters acknowledged that they, personally, would not vote for an African-American candidate.
These sentiments were reflected in the exit polls in the Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey Democratic primaries as well. According to Slate, "In the Pennsylvania primary, one in six white voters told exit pollsters race was a factor in his or her decision. Seventy-five percent of those people voted for Clinton.... Twelve percent of the Pennsylvania primary electorate acknowledged that it didn't vote for Barack Obama in part because he is African-American."
As America moves forward from its historic night, forty-five years after Dr. King told us about his dream, we have much to celebrate. Senator Barack Obama is evidence of the fact that progress has been made. He is a powerful symbol of what America can be. However, America must not get lost in the symbolism; the reality is still too stark.
As he closed his speech, Obama said, "America, our work will not be easy. The challenges we face require tough choices, and Democrats as well as Republicans will need to cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past." He's correct; the work will not be easy and the toughest choice for too many Americans will be a choice based on prejudice, bigotry and hatred instead of policy, competence and vision. Can Americans look into the depths of their hearts, search worn-out ideas and politics of the past? Can we live up to the very founding principles of this great nation?
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
If so, Senator Barack Hussein Obama has the same chance as Senator John Sidney McCain III to become the 44th president of the United States.
Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III is the producer/host of the nationally broadcast call-in talk radio program "On With Leon" on XM Satellite Radio Channel 169, and a teaching associate in the Department of Political Science at Howard University in Washington, DC. Go to www.wilmerleon.com or email: email@example.com.