Martin Luther King Jr. would have known better, on that November night in 2008, than to proclaim the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States as a triumphant moment in civil rights, as the moment when America rejected the prejudices of its history and, at long last, overcame.
King, assassinated at 39 by a convict on the run, a “hell hound” one author called him, had fought too many battles, been in too many jails, had seen the blows of too many nightsticks to believe that one election represented a transformative moment in the history of his country.
Yes, it was a substantial symbol. But eight years later, on the day we mark the anniversary of King’s birth as a national holiday, it’s clear that the United States, in the 151st year since the end of the Civil War, has miles to go before its racial divides have been closed and its prejudices diminished, much less eliminated.
Today, thousands will gather at the King monument in Washington. But elsewhere the never-ending attempts to undermine the nation’s first black president will continue.
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The president has not himself blamed the racial divide for the intense hatred many in the Congress and the electorate feel for him. But the factor race plays in intensifying the opposition to all things Obama is impossible to ignore. And this day, this celebration of Martin Luther King Jr., is an appropriate time to pay attention to it.
This president led the nation out of a crippling recession and into an era of prosperity. Yet Republican presidential candidates now talk endlessly about the dire straits of the country. The bull’s-eye on their political target is the president. And yet the nation’s economy is strong, after the president’s stimulus plans worked, after he saved the auto industry.
Ironically, though a GOP-led Congress tries to keep its boot on the necks of the poor and the middle class, their economic elite, under this president, is prospering.
The president’s political opponents decried “Obamacare” as a disaster and still do. Yet it has helped millions, and it did not explode the federal deficit as his opponents predicted.
But from the Congress to the state houses, mostly in the South, signs of racial division are clear still. The voter suppression laws, notably voter ID, are clearly intended by Republicans to diminish the voting clout of their opponents, notably lower income people and minorities. Likewise the failure to expand Medicaid, a Republican non-action in North Carolina and other Southern states.
These are the issues Martin Luther King Jr. would be addressing today, in marches and speeches. For it is clear his business is unfinished.
It is clear that his “dream” that inspired so many Americans more than 50 years ago remains just that, a dream. It is clear that not just the black but the poor and the Hispanic and, increasingly, the middle class remain outside the circle of opportunity, a circle that seems to be shrinking when it should be expanding.
A November night in 2008 offered hope. King’s dream, in part, achieved a reality that in his day seemed unreachable. But whether King’s dream will be realized for millions and millions of Americans remains in question.