Editorial published in the Bennington Banner, January 19, 2009
With the inauguration of the first African American President of the United States tomorrow, the annual holiday celebrating the birth of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today takes on special meaning.
“That we would have a celebration of Dr. King’s birth and the inauguration of the first black president on consecutive days is almost too much to ask for,” said William Jelani Cobb, an American History professor at Spellman College, quoted in an Associated Press article. “(Barack) Obama’s election represents the fulfillment of the most well-known of King’s dreams, that people would be judged by the content of their character.”
The U.S. has indeed come a long way in the 40 years since Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, at age 39. President-elect Barack Obama was six years old when King died, and the famed civil rights leader has now been gone longer than he lived.
Gone but in not forgotten. Campaiging for president, Mr. Obama spoke many times of Dr. King and accepted his party’s nomination for president on the 45th anniversary of his famed “I Have a Dream” speech. In this speech, Dr. King said he dreamed of the day that his children would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.
And few would dispute that the content of his character, rather than the color of his skin, is the reason why Barack Obama will be sworn in as president on Tuesday. His election is surely a sign that Dr. King’s dream is coming closer to reality.
But it’s also worth remembering — especially in this time of wars abroad and economc crisis at home — that Dr. King’s concerns included more than racial equality.
He also campaigned for economic justice, non-violence and the creation of what he called the “Beloved Community.” Dr. King’s vocal opposition to the Vietnam War, and the criticism and loss of support this caused him, are not well-remembered today. His work for economic justice — he was in Memphis campaigning for decent working conditions and pay for municipal trash collectors when he was killed — is also not usually focused upon.
Indeed, Dr. King’s “dream” included more than civil rights for blacks. According to scholars Kenneth L. Smith and Ira G. Zepp Jr., King’s “Beloved Community” was “a vision of a completely integrated society, a community of love and justice wherein brotherhood would be an actuality in all of social life.”
Whether or not our nation’s first African American President can bring us any closer to this prophetic vision remains to be seem. Yet, Mr. Obama’s commitment to rely more on diplomacy and less on military power, may well be a step toward a less violent, more stable world. His commitment to a more just division of the domestic economic pie may well be a step toward a more just nation.
Moreover, Mr. Obama’s frequently expressed desire that the U.S. be less polarized, with all Americans working together on the things they can agree about — rather than being at each other’s throats over the things they don’t — may well usher a more unified country.
So, on this national holiday honoring a great African American, it’s worth recalling his full legacy. The Rev. Ralph Warnock, pastor of Ebenezeer Baptist Church, Dr. King’s spiritual home, summed it up nicely:
“If anything, the inauguration underscores once again the continuing significance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s prophetic voice in his time, and in our own,” Mr. Warnock told the AP. “It has raised the American consciousness of the work of a prophet that it held at arms’ length during his lifetime.”