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Clarence B. Jones

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President Obama's Inauguration and the Legacy of Dr. King

Posted: 01/15/2013 3:10 pm

In a previous blog I noted that the inauguration of President Obama's second term coincides with our national commemoration of the 84th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It also coincides with a national conversation about gun violence following the tragic events in Newtown, CT and the NRA's call for a national "Gun Appreciation Day" that lands on Dr. King's holiday.

The inauguration is also taking place following Academy Award nominations and media promotion Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty.

Additionally, Dr. King's holiday occurs as Vice President Joe Biden, at the behest of the president, prepares to unveil a new White House plan to confront the scourge of gun violence in America. Gun sales have skyrocketed since Newtown.

Does the fortuitous confluence of these events reflect the core values of who we are and what we stand for as a nation today?

It has been reported in the media that some people in our country viewed the election and now the re-election of President Obama as a serious threat to their Second Amendment rights. Among other things, the Second Amendment provides that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." However, even conservative Supreme Court justice Anthony Scalia in his 2008 decision overturning the Washington, DC ban on handguns, did not suggest that any future limitations on the exercise of rights under Second Amendment would automatically be unconstitutional.

In the current environment of international and domestic violence it is also important to remember that President Obama and Dr. King are also recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. King received the prize for his leadership efforts enabling America to redeem and reclaim its soul by ending racial segregation.

President Obama refers to Dr. King's as the leader of the "Moses Generation." Presumably, Obama was awarded his prize was for his election as America's first African-American President from the "Joshua Generation."

Their acceptance speeches in Oslo, Norway, however, provide a contrast as to how both, at the time of their awards, saw the use, efficacy and limitations upon the pursuit of non-violence as a rational option for conflict resolution in the world.

In 1964, Dr. King said:

This award which I receive... is profound recognition that non-violence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time -- the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression... Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.

Subsequently, in 2009, President Obama, in accepting his award, while praising Dr. King, described a distinctive difference between Dr. King's unqualified commitment to the pursuit of non-violence and those "pragmatic" requirements and limitations, which Obama said he faces as "commander in chief." Pragmatism required him, when "necessary" to engage in the use violence. He suggested that, in special circumstances even preemptive military violence might be necessary to defend our nation.

The president said:

We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago - "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak -- nothing passive,nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world...

To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism - it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason...

We see the inevitable amoral application of Obama's just war doctrine depicted during the fictional interrogation sequences of suspected terrorists in the movie Zero Dark Thirty. The continued indefinite detention of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay and the discretionary targeted killing of terrorist suspects by CIA drones reflect the extension of Obama's "just war" doctrine in real life in 2013.

I had privilege of working closely with Dr. King during those historic years of his leadership. As a result, there are, sometimes, present-day moments of déjà vu; moments reminiscent of the paradox confronting us during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.

At that time no president since Abraham Lincoln had done more too promote and enact Civil Rights in America than President Johnson. Because of this, those of us who counseled Dr. King, were reluctant, initially, to recommend that he should publicly criticize Johnson's conduct of the war in Vietnam. Discussion within Dr. King's "Research Committee" among his kitchen cabinet of advisers was sharp and divided.

Ultimately, it was Dr. King who ended the debate. He reminded us "as a Minister of the Gospel, I do not segregate my moral concerns. The Vietnam War is either morally right or morally wrong." Moreover, he added, President Johnson was squandering the resources of our treasury in pursuit of the war in Vietnam; depriving our government of those resources urgently needed to conduct any meaningful "war on poverty."

In his speech, "Time To Break The Silence", on April 4th, 1967, Dr. King reiterated:

I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money, like some demonic destructive suction cup tube.

Nobel Economist Joseph Stiglitz and Linda J. James, two years ago in their book The Three Trillion Dollar War estimated the Iraq and Afghanistan war costs. Other independent stats estimate the daily cost of the Afghanistan war alone, today, as $2 billion a week. This is similar to the criticism that Dr. King directed at President Johnson about the diversion of resources of the Treasury in his escalated pursuit of the War in Vietnam.

There have been moments during Obama's presidency that some of my African-Americans friends have said to me, "Don't be too hard on Obama; cut the brother some slack."

In one of first blogs I wrote after Obama's election I commented on the new "play book" confronting African American journalists reporting on Obama after became president of the United States. Any suggestion of applying a "double standard" of criticism to Obama because he is an African-American, especially on the concurrence of our national commemoration of Dr. King's birthday and the president's reelection inauguration would be the ultimate corruption and "pimping" of the "Dream" Dr. King had for America.

Historians will have to judge whether Martin Luther King, Jr.'s unqualified commitment to the pursuit of non-violence was ultimately, long term, more beneficial for the soul of America. Or, whether the Obama doctrine of pre-emptive just wars was is, not only more beneficial, but necessary after 9/11.

(For a more extensive discussion of this issue I recommend the book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Non-Violent Conflict by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan.)

Again, as noted in an earlier blog, the King holiday and the inauguration also occur a few weeks after the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, abolishing slavery; and during the 50th anniversary year of Dr. King's celebrated "I Have A Dream" speech. Both events are also scheduled at a time when our country is awash with deaths from gun violence.

Gun violence in America is a disease. It is a major public health problem. As such, President Obama should enlist the office of the surgeon general in a national emergency campaign to "stop gun violence."

In contrast to NRA's proposed "Gun Appreciation Day," President Obama should make this year's commemoration of Dr King's birthday something uniquely special -- not merely by having Marlie Evers, widow of slain Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers, deliver the inauguration invocation. Much more is required.

If this means mounting a campaign requiring background checks for all gun sales in our country, then by all means, this should be pursued. If it means that President Obama should undertake the political risks of seeking to end the sale of assault weapons and high capacity magazines, then this too should be sought. After, Newtown, the country may be more responsive to a White House initiative to achieve these objectives than ever before.

The president often makes reference to Dr. King's use of the phrase that "the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice." One of the more compelling uses of this phrase was on March 25, 1965. After completing the third march to Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King addressed the crowd assembled around him on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol. I was one of those persons in the crowd.

Dr. King said:

"I know you are asking today: "How long will it take?"

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again.

How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.

How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow...

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Dr. King's reference to "the arc of the universe bending toward justice" was taken from the 1853 sermon on "Justice and Conscience" by the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker.

Slain by the rifle bullet of a racist assassin in Memphis, Martin Luther King, Jr. is America's apostle of non-violence. Accordingly, the greatest tribute President Obama can give in commemoration of our beloved apostle of non-violence is to remind our nation that yes, the moral arc of the universe does bend toward justice. But "justice," in honor of our brother Martin, requires that we do whatever it takes, 24/7, to initiate programs to reduce and eradicate the spread of the disease of gun violence in our country.

As we commemorate Dr. King's birthday, the epidemic disease of gun violence is killing our children nationwide. Many African-American communities have become black "killing fields."

Dr. King would want us to save and protect our children. Moreover, if not us, today's adults, who are collective trustees charged with protecting the lives of our children, then who will protect them?

And, if not now, when?

 
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