What would Martin Luther King Jr. say to President Obama?
If Martin Luther King Jr. were here today, he would take heart in the fact that the vestiges of legalized segregation are gone. He would be amazed that a likeness of him had been placed on the National Mall. And he would be gratified that America had elected its first African-American president. His dream was about more than racial justice, though it often represents the greatest moral stain on our society. His dream was about building a society based on simple justice that values the dignity and the worth of every human being.
Were he alive today it is telling that his message would still be essentially the same. It is troubling that unemployment is so high. In 1963 the overall rate of unemployment was 5.3 percent. In some African American communities it is three to four times as high today as it was then, and it has doubled in society at large. We are so caught up in the details of deficits and debt ceilings that we question whether government has any moral role to serve the poor, to help feed the hungry and assist the sick. Today, Dr. King would still be asking questions that reveal the moral meaning of our policies. And he would still challenge our leaders to answer those questions – and to act on their beliefs.
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 a leader has the ability to inspire people to greatness, but 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 Obama to feel the hurt and pain of those without jobs, of mothers and their children who go to bed hungry at night, of the families living in shelters who have lost their homes, and 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 any hesitation that war is obsolete, that it destroys the very soul of a nation, that it wastes human lives and limited natural resources.
He would say that Obama’s election represents a significant step toward laying down the burden of race, but that work is still not complete. When one member of Congress calls the president a “tar baby” on a radio show, 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.
Dr. King would tell this young leader to do what he can to end discrimination based on race, color, class, language, religious faith and sexual orientation. He would say that righteous work makes its own way. There is no need to match each step to the latest opinion poll. Take a stand, he would say. Go with your gut. Let the people of this country see that you are fighting for them, and they will have your back.
There will be opposition, and it might become ugly. Dr. King faced threats on his life and he had no protection beyond his faith. But he believed in the power of the truth to expose what is wrong in America. He believed that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And the reason it does is because of the central goodness of humankind.
Martin Luther King Jr. believed that once people heard the truth, their tendency to bend toward what is right would pave the way for goodness to prevail. And it still can.
Rep. John Lewis
(Represents the 5th District of Georgia and is the last surviving speaker from the March on Washington)
This is a re-working of an article published in The Washington Post on 8-26-11