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What would MLK say to President Obama?

John Lewis | 8/30/2011, 11:40 p.m.

Among those leaders, I know he would take a special interest in President Obama — not only because he is the first African American to sit in the Oval Office, but because Dr. King recognized the power of one man to transform a nation. He would say that the president has the capacity to unify America, to bring us together as one people, one family, one house. He would say that a leader has the ability to inspire people to greatness, but that to do so he must be daring, courageous and unafraid to demonstrate what he is made of.  

As a minister, never elected to any public office, Dr. King would tell this young leader that it is his moral obligation to use his power and influence to help those who have been left out and left behind. He would encourage him to get out of Washington, to break away from handlers and advisers and go visit the people where they live. He would urge him to meet the coal miners of West Virginia; to shake the hands of the working poor in our large urban centers, juggling multiple jobs to try to make ends meet; to go to the barrios of the Southwest; and to visit native Americans on their reservations.

He would urge Obama to feel the hurt and pain of those without work, of mothers and their children who go to bed hungry at night, of the families living in shelters after losing their homes, and of the elderly who chose between buying medicine and paying the rent.

Dr. King would say that a Nobel Peace Prize winner can and must find a way to demonstrate that he is a man of peace, a man of love and non-violence. He would say it is time to bring an end to war and get our young men and women out of harm’s way. Dr. King would assert without hesitation that war is obsolete, that it destroys the very soul of a nation, that it wastes human lives and natural resources.  

A. Philip Randolph, the dean of the civil rights movement and the convener of the March on Washington, once advocated creating what he called a “freedom budget” that would be a collection point for the resources government would use to help create jobs, rebuild infrastructure, clean up the waterways and make sure we have clean air to breathe and nutritious food to eat. I think Dr. King would ask why we couldn’t do something like this today.

He would say that Obama’s election represents a significant step toward laying down the burden of race, but that this task is not yet complete. The election of 2008 was a major down payment on Dr. King’s dream, but it did not fulfill it. When one member of Congress calls the president a “tar baby” on a radio show and when another cries out “You lie!” during a State of the Union address, it is more than clear that we still do not understand the need to respect human dignity despite our differences.