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Column: King's legacy in the Age of Obama

By Michael Eric Dyson

When President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the Lincoln Memorial Wednesday, on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, he will inevitably be compared to Martin Luther King Jr., whose oration that day framed the moral purpose of the civil rights movement.

But there are huge differences between the prophetic icon and the political prodigy that reveal the competing and, at times, conflicting demands of the vocations they embraced. If we fail to understand the difference between the two, we will never appreciate the arc of their social aspiration — or fairly measure King and Obama's achievements.

Forty-five years after he was cut down by an assassin's bullet, King has become a global icon rivaled by few Americans. His outsized legend eclipsed the life he lived and overcame his enemies' efforts to erase him from memory. King made a comeback in death from the bitter defeats near the end of his life, as the challenge of black militants made him seem increasingly out of touch. He has now leapfrogged virtually every other contender to be viewed as the greatest black American. Only Obama has come close to King's popularity. But the preacher's bloodstained sacrifice lifts him above the historic pull of presidential swagger.

If King made history in the 1960s, Obama owns the 2010s and the last gasps of the aughts. It has not been easy deciding the prophet's orbit in the president's universe. Obama has echoed King's conciliatory words while sidestepping the minister's majestic rage at the social ills that mock genuine justice.

Some of King's most celebrated colleagues have embraced Obama as the embodiment of King's vibrant dream of equality — including the wizened elder Joseph Lowery and King's younger heroic compatriot Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.). Critics have suggested that King's relentless criticism of injustice makes him too much of a wild card to deal from Obama's tamer deck of policies and strategies.

How then are we to understand and enliven King's legacy in the Age of Obama?

It might help to remember that the role King adopted, and the one Obama plays, often puts them at odds. Prophets like King not only tell it like it is, they tell it as it should be.

They tirelessly question both the fruit of our labor for justice and the tree on which it grows or withers. They tell hard truths at inconvenient moments and call on powerful figures and governments to act justly before divine judgment falls on all our heads.

This should not be mistaken for insults mouthed by fretful presidential naysayers who churn in resentment and noisy discontent. It's easy to see how lesser gifted social critics and self-anointed defenders of the enlightened vanguard confuse prophetic declaration with pathetic denunciation. Obama has weathered his share of barbs sprung from petty disputes.

Consider what Cornel West and Tavis Smiley have been saying. West has descended into name-calling and indignant reproach of Obama and his perceived defenders. Both men hurl stones from a political glasshouse.

King, however, never spit epithets at the president. Not at President John Kennedy, who had stalled racial progress on his watch, and told one confidant that King coming to the Oval Office would be akin to Karl Marx visiting the White House. Nor at President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was increasingly infuriated by King's opposition to the Vietnam War, swearing, "that goddamned nigger preacher."

West's harangues of the president in King's name bear no resemblance to King's prophetic style. Even as the FBI snooped in King's bedroom, capturing his banter and political exchanges, nothing he said in private came close to what West has said publicly about Obama — fuming that he's a "black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs." After Obama's private reprimand of the beleaguered professor sheared his afro down to size, West let on, "I wanted to slap him on the side of his head."

King's prophetic fury roared as he sought to correct a society that veered off its moral path, not to spill venom on the president. King spoke out against the scourge of poverty, racism and militarism in his final days instead of fixing one man in his crosshairs, wishing to slap sense into him.

Most telling, King often criticized himself in public. Aware of his own shortcomings, he warned listeners at one sermon not to call him a saint, and again when he said, in his landmark Riverside Church speech opposing the Vietnam War, that he had to "move to break the betrayal of my own silences."

Obama's role is not that of a prophet but a conscientious politician. If pushed, not verbally bludgeoned, he might become an inspiring statesman. Prophets have the ethical luxury to offer wholesale criticism of systems and orders; they need give little thought to statecraft or governance. Politicians, particularly a president, are compelled by the interests of the state to preserve the union while toiling to fix what's gone wrong. We can't possibly expect Obama to behave like King.

But we can encourage Obama to measure his achievements against the template King laid in the American conscience. King's prophetic words and deeds should be used to size up Obama's political performance and press him to pay more attention to escalating black unemployment, gaping racial disparities in education and the gun violence that snuffed King's existence.

We must expand King's prophetic itinerary if his legacy is to be preserved. The issues he took on at the end of his life remain, and must be revisited — and where possible, remedied.

But a host of other issues has arisen. The United States has crowded its prisons with black and brown bodies, many roped in for nonviolent drug offenses. Scholar Michelle Alexander has memorably termed this "the new Jim Crow." Making money off the often unjust and disproportionate imprisonment of black and brown folk is a prophetic priority that rings true to King.

So is the witch hunt for immigrants who might be hiding out from the law. A nation built on the pride of immigrants must dispute the notion that we can get immigration right by kicking out all who are here illegally. Scapegoating immigrants is no substitute for offering viable paths to citizenship and treating their children with compassion and justice.

The need for compassion and justice extends to our social and ethical boundaries. King didn't live long enough to witness the fierce debate over sexual orientation and the legal and moral distress it births. Many black folk have used scripture to argue the immorality of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender sexuality — in the same way the Bible was used to suppress black social rebellion.

These same black religious folk have neglected bitter historical lessons about the denial to slaves of the right to marry, and the outlawing of interracial marriage well into the 20th century. The fight against sexual bigotry begins when we refuse anger at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folk for "stealing" our racial model and drawing what many blacks see as false comparisons to the civil rights movement.

If, as some say, the LGBT community ripped off black folk to fuel their movement, King would likely be the first to say that he and other black folk ripped off Mahatma Gandhi and Indian folk to fuel the American civil rights struggle. There's no such thing as patents on protest among the social movements that share the will to be free. Social movements by nature are sweetly promiscuous in the knowledge they gain and the methods they share. The last people whose feet should be on the neck of the oppressed are those who did everything they needed to be free.

Nearly a half century after his death, King's prophetic strength fuels the fight to bear witness to black suffering and tell the truth about black pain in love. King's shining example also lights the path for millions who seek to be free from oppression — in whatever form it appears.

In the Age of Obama, King's legacy is more critical than ever to remind us of what remains to be done to make our nation a reflection of our noblest dreams and our highest ideals.

(The views expressed are author's own.)

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