MLK helped pave the road to the White House for Obama, but it will take more than Tuesday's inauguration to fulfill King's dream. By Joan Walsh
Jan. 19, 2009 |
With Martin Luther King Jr.'s 80th birthday celebration only a day before Barack Obama becomes our first black president, it's impossible not to focus on the redemptive symmetry between 1968, when King was murdered, and 2008, the year of Obama's unlikely victory. But I find myself thinking much more about 1966 as I wonder whether and how Obama can complete King's work.
1966 was likewise full of Obama-King echoes: That was the year Obama's city, Chicago, devastated King when he moved his racial equality crusade north. It's the year King faced a growing white and black backlash. Most important, it's officially the year civil rights liberalism died, when Ronald Reagan defeated California Gov. Pat Brown, running against Brown's supposed tolerance for black Watts rioters and Berkeley radicals, channeling white fears of the urban violence King opposed, and riding a backlash against the civil rights and Great Society reforms King inspired. Two years before Richard Nixon honed the GOP's Southern Strategy, Reagan at once beat Brown and vanquished liberalism, and liberalism "never really recovered," Matthew Dallek wrote in "The Right Moment," his book about Reagan's first victory.
But lo, these 40 years later, a great black leader rose from the rough racial politics of Chicago to defeat the GOP strategy of scapegoating, fear and racism. The McCain-Palin campaign tried but couldn't smear Obama as a shadowy socialist who pals around with terrorists and wants to give your money to people who don't deserve it, the heir to the Black Panthers and Bill Ayers' Weather Underground all at the same time. Some 42 years after Reagan figured out how to thwart King's optimism and use the excesses of civil rights and antiwar radicals against Democrats, Obama put together a glorious multiracial Democratic coalition to defeat that grim GOP vision.
Clearly Obama's race as well as his commitment to equality and opportunity for all makes him a powerful symbol of King's legacy. "I may not get there with you," King prophetically told supporters the night before he died, "but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land." Some 40 years later, are we there yet?
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