[Still relevant for presidential elections, Obama vs. Romney, in October 2012…]
“The disenchanted, the disadvantaged, and the disinherited seem, at times of great crisis, to summon up some sort of genius that enables them to perceive and capture the appropriate weapons to carve out their destiny.” –Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait
“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to ensure the rule of law and the rights of man…Those ideals still light up the world, and we [America] will not give them up for expediency’s sake.” –Barack Obama, The Inaugural Address 2009
During his remarkable campaign for President, Barack Obama was positioned as the next Great Man in American political history. He was marketed as an icon, and comparisons to Martin Luther King, Jr. were commonplace. There are certainly many parallels between the political paths of Obama and King: they led sweeping grassroots movements in the face of local and national criticism. They both reflected America’s hope for the possibilities of the future, and both proclaimed a personal dedication to human rights. When Obama clinched the election, he seemed poised to be remembered as the next Token African-American Leader, the historical successor of MLK, Jr.
I canvassed for Obama in the 2008 primaries, and I took part in the wonder and satisfaction of his supporters that November. Nevertheless, I’m very uncomfortable with the possibility of Obama being memorialized as the next Martin Luther King, Jr. Based on his recent policy decisions, Obama has lost his way from the grassroots that elected him and the tradition of civil rights to which we are all indebted.
On top of the record deportations and extrajudicial assassinations, the recently-enacted National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) legalizes indefinite detention without trial and confirms Obama’s abandonment of his principles. He pledged to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention camp within the first year of his presidency, and last week the Gitmo torture facility marked its tenth anniversary. Combined with the NDAA, I am overwhelmed by disgust and rage when I think about how the U.S. treats its prisoners and the audacity of Obama’s political hypocrisy.
Martin Luther King, Jr. earned his spot in history through an unwavering commitment to social justice, even in the face of imminent physical danger. President Obama seems to have forgotten what his leadership embodies: that America’s “security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, and the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”Instead, he set aside his allegiance to ‘the rights of man.’ Instead, he signed into law Bush-era mistakes based on violence, ignorance and xenophobia.
The 99% movement is in desperate need of practical strategy, and I think frustrated, jaded Americans are equally in need of a salve for their political wounds. Until Barack Obama reveals a Snape-style character twist, I don’t think we can rely on him for inspiring leadership. So… let’s just upcycle the reverend doctor’s legacy then, shall we?
Thanks to recording technology, people born after 1968 can still hear King speak. Obama is an outstanding orator himself, but there’s something especially captivating about King’s delivery that Obama’s measured warmth can’t match. Even reading King’s words, his voice jumps off of the page, inviting me to read them aloud, to better understand. His clarity and wisdom soothe my anger, and they remind me of our individual and collective capacity to overcome injustice.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice offers more than just inspiration, and his power goes beyond his well-remembered Dream. In his written works, King offers a pragmatic approach to planning, training, and demonstrating that the Occupy protests have yet to develop. He gives detailed explanations of the decisions and strategies behind coordinating a “nonviolent army.” Even the title of his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, speaks to the core of widespread uncertainty about Occupy’s trajectory. Until biological science catches up with Matt Groening’s imagination, connecting with King’s spoken and written voice is the best way to access his nuanced social insights.
To help my own political recovery, I’ve drafted a post-Obama doctrine of hope. I hope new grassroots organizers adapt King’s strategies to direct 21st century activism. I hope Americans will restore a profound commitment to human rights within U.S. federal policy. I hope my fellow millenials can learn that a campaign does not make a presidency, and a protest does not make a community. I hope the textbooks we write will not remember King and Obama as mere tokens, but will distinguish between them based on the content of their character. I hope Americans who are frustrated, jaded, and skeptical will rediscover their potential to enact social change. At the very least, I hope we can find some better presidential candidates by 2016.
 Barack Obama, The Inaugural Address 2009 (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 9.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait (New York: New American Library, 1968), 38.