MLK and Barack Obama: Diametrically Opposed Legacies
By Glen Ford / Black Agenda ReportThe following is an edited version of remarks delivered by Glen Ford at a panel discussion organized by World Beyond War, April 3, at New York University, titled: “Remembering Past Wars and Preventing the Next.” A video of the entire event can be seen here.
When we invoke the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, it is usually in the context of “civil rights” and “human rights.” Today, it is in the context of peace.
I like to think of Dr. King’s work as part of the civilizational project of humanity — that is, how human beings construct a world in which they can coexist and thrive in the bosom of nature.
The civilizational project is a justice project. Civilization is not just about technology. It is not just about wealth and the accumulation of surplus. It’s about what people collectively do with that surplus. It’s about justice.
The Black Radical Tradition is about justice; it is a civilization-building tradition. Justice is the measure of civilization, and there can be no peace without it.
Of necessity, the Black Radical Tradition speaks to the broad sweep of human historical development. There is nothing narrow or parochial about it.
And sometimes, the Black Radical Tradition finds that perfect voice, at the pivotal time. On April 4, 1967, that was Dr. King’s voice, when he told his audience at Riverside Church that their country was “the greatest purveyor of violence” on Earth, and that there was a damnable system in place that had created this nightmare, and that righteous men and women had no choice but to oppose it.
READ AND LISTEN: MLK’s ‘Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence’ Speech
Dr. King spoke of the Triple Evils: racism, militarism and materialism — meaning, in contemporary society, capitalism.
The sum total of these evils is U.S. imperialism, the global system that was committing the violence he came to that church to oppose — the system of capitalism as it actually exists, that is headquartered in the United States, and whose violence is the greatest obstacle to the construction of a humane civilization.
When Dr. King said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he was expressing confidence that humanity would throw off — overthrow — these evil systems.
That did not sit well with the captains of imperialism, and Dr. King was dead exactly one year later.
But, that did not silence the voices of Black anti-imperialism. Those voices, including Dr. King’s own, had gotten even louder and more defiant after the assassination of Malcolm X, three years earlier.
The Black Panther Party’s appeal was so compelling that its chapter infrastructure could not absorb the tens of thousands of Black youth that wanted to join.
SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which some folks thought of as the children of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, were agitating against the war and the draft years before King. They had taken up the anti-imperialist banner in the years after the exile of W.E.B. Du Bois and the erasure of Paul Robeson from public life — men who were giants of anti-imperialism.
When Dr. King was shot down, there erupted the greatest wave of Black rebellion in the history of the United States. That rebellion fueled the explosive growth of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, whose appeal was so compelling that its chapter infrastructure could not absorb the tens of thousands of Black youth that wanted to join.
It was a revolutionary Black nationalism that was profoundly anti-imperialist — proudly and loudly socialist — a movement determined to join with a world that was up in arms against the empire.
It was Malcolm’s child – out to avenge Dr. King.
Therefore, it had to be crushed by the massive repressive forces of the State, in a dirty war that reached its most savage peak in 1969 with a merciless campaign of political imprisonment and assassination, including the murder of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark by Chicago police and the FBI.
The Party was driven into retreat, back to its founding turf in Oakland, California.
However, the decisive blow to the Black movement for self-determination and against U.S. imperialism was delivered by forces internal to the Black community. It came from a class that had not been concerned about justice in any civilizational sense, but only about getting rid of Jim Crow — American apartheid — so that they could also walk the halls of the empire and live the corporate life.
Their vehicle — the only one that was open to this Black aspiring class — was the Democratic Party, because the other party was busy transforming itself into the White Man’s Party.
With very few exceptions, this was a class for itself, consumed by a mission of “representationalism.” They wanted no part in social transformation; they wanted only to be represented in the upper echelons of corporate, governmental and symbolic media power.
Their agenda was solely concerned with their own upward mobility. They were not about justice or peace.
Here are two examples — founding members of this new, Black Misleadership Class:
Carl Stokes, the first Black big city mayor, elected in Cleveland, 1967. The first thing he did was to appoint a Black retired general as police chief, and the first thing the general did was to arm the cops with hollow point bullets.
Maynard Jackson, the first Black mayor of Atlanta, elected in 1973. Four years later, he fired 1,000 striking sanitation workers – the same folks that Dr. King had gone to Memphis to support nine years earlier — and died trying.
The rise of a selfish, servile, corporate ass-kissing Black class, combined with murderous application of state power, snuffed out the Black Liberation Movement, which was anti-imperialist at the core.
There was a brief resurgence of Black “movement” politics with the campaign against South African apartheid. But, only briefly.
The rise of a selfish, servile, corporate ass-kissing Black class, combined with murderous application of state power, snuffed out the Black Liberation Movement.
For two generations, Black movement politics was smothered by the hegemonic power of the Democratic Party, whose tentacles strangled the militancy out of virtually every Black civic organization. The churches, the fraternities, the sororities — all behave like annexes of the Democratic Party.
They invoke Dr. King’s name, and use the word “justice” a lot — and the word “peace” every so often — but justice and peace cannot possibly find a home in one of the two parties of war.
So, the question becomes: Does two generations without a real peace and social justice movement in Black America mean that the Black Radical Tradition has been crushed? Have Black people, the historically most left-leaning constituency in the United States, shed their anti-imperialism and embraced war?
The most definitive answer that I have seen to that question came in a Zogby poll, conducted in late February, 2003. It was only a few weeks before George Bush crossed into Iraq — a war that everyone knew was coming. The Zogby poll asked a straightforward question. Here it is, verbatim:
“Would you support an invasion of Iraq if it resulted in the death of thousands of Iraqi civilians?”
A super-majority of white males said, “Hell yes, let’s get it on.” A bare majority of white females felt the same way. Sixteen percent of Hispanic Americans said they would invade, even if it meant killing thousands of civilians.
However, only 7 percent of Blacks agreed with that statement — meaning, only a marginal segment of Black America had any willingness to kill Iraqi men, women and children. This shows that the Black worldview is worlds apart from that of most white men and women. It’s also very strong evidence that Black people remain anti-imperialist, despite two generations without a movement that was loudly and proudly and defiantly anti-imperialist.
But, then came the First Black President: Barack Obama.
We at Black Agenda Report feared, correctly, that a pro-war, Black Democratic president would have a profound effect on Black political behavior. We were very anxious about the rise of this guy who we knew would be a war president. We worried about the effect that his presence in the Oval Office would have on the Black worldview. We expected, and got, the worst.
We feared that Black people, for the first time in history, might begin to identify with U.S. national power if one of their number was the personification of that power. That is a very, very heady brew for a people who had been rendered invisible for most of their sojourn in North America.
There was never any question of how the Black Misleadership Class would react to having a Black Democrat in the White House. Their agenda is to stick as close to Power as possible, and to celebrate Blacks being represented in the halls of power, even if that person is engaged in crimes against humanity and crimes against peace. And so, the Black Misleadership Class did not surprise us in terms of their behavior under President Obama.
Back in 2002, when President George Bush was asking for War Powers permission to attack Iraq, only four members of the Congressional Black Caucus went along with him. But by June of 2011, when the United States and NATO were doing their regime change mission in Libya, more than half of the Congressional Black Caucus — 24 members — gave their full permission and assent to Obama’s continued bombing of Libya. And 31 of the 40 or so voting members of the Caucus opted to continue spending money on the Libyan operation. That number includes John Lewis, who tries to cloak himself in all the vestments of Dr. Martin Luther King. He also voted to continue funding for that war, AFRICOM’s first war on Africa.
Keith Ellison called that war “a blow for freedom and self-determination.”
But, what about the masses of Black people? There was some disturbing evidence of the effect that Barack Obama’s presence in the White House was having on Black people’s historical, bedrock anti-imperialism. Back in late August of 2013, Obama threatened to launch airstrikes against Syria. Polls showed that 40 percent of Black Americans would have supported such an airstrike, compared to only 38 percent of whites and a smaller percentage of Hispanic Americans.
It is true that only minorities of any American ethnicity supported Obama’s threatened strike, but this was the first poll in the history of polling in which more Black people were for a warlike action than white people. Compare that to the only 7 percent of Blacks that supported an invasion of Iraq, a decade earlier. Obama has had his effect.
With the current hysteria about Russia, we see the entirety of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Black Misleadership Class badmouthing the Kremlin with the same intensity and insanity as their white counterparts. What really disturbed me, however, was a conversation I had with a brother who styles himself as a revolutionary. He’s head of the Revolutionary Black Panther Party. I was interviewing him after the police “vamped” on some of their members in Milwaukee. All of a sudden, out of the blue, he starts talking about those damn Russians! And he’s supposed to be a revolutionary Black Panther!
Dr. Gerald Horne speaks of the “Putin Derangement Syndrome” that afflicts the ruling circles in the United States, who fear the U.S. is losing its dominant position in the world. But, somehow, this insanity has filtered down, even to folks that call themselves Black revolutionaries.
The First Black President has left us with a deep and lingering problem. Even out of office, he packs a weaponized legacy.
Black Agenda Report executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.