Dr. King's True Legacy: A Lesson for Progressives in the Age of Obama

02/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This is a remarkable, breathtaking moment for us all. Who can doubt that we are celebrating something special here -- there's something in the air that we can feel, touch, grasp. There's hope in this moment, a sense of possibility that elevates our joy. Yet for those of us who are activists for peace, freedom, equality and fairness -- this heady moment challenges us to keep our eyes on the prize.

The symbolism surrounding Martin Luther King, Jr. has been everywhere lately. The celebration of his 80th birthday, the sound of his soaring oratory, the image of his outstretched arms reaching toward the throngs of racial-justice pilgrims have all been repeatedly invoked to indelibly link this moment to the historic movement that preceded it. In today's most rehearsed narrative, Dr. King and President Obama are now the opening and closing chapters of a triumphant tale about how America finally overcame its tragic racial sins.

Pundits and celebrants caught up in the moment have pronounced that King's "Dream" has been achieved, and perhaps even more surprisingly, that the Founders' vision has finally been realized. This latter claim is so much at odds with how the Founders' would have received this moment that it makes little sense to focus on it. But we should take time to think about the more plausible legacy of King's dream and its relationship to peace.

While there is certainly reason to celebrate, one danger in overclaiming what the moment means is that we all may confuse this particular milestone -- one in which a spectacular man breaks through a monumental racial barrier -- with the broader reach of King's dream, that of ending the everyday racial realities that shape the lives of everyday people. Moreover, this "Mission Accomplished" approach threatens to rip King's Civil Rights legacy apart from his Peace legacy and thereby deny the insight that he fought so courageously to articulate -- that the two are inextricably intertwined. As progressives, the "Mission Accomplished" narrative invites us to check off one huge task on our "To Do" list: End Racism. Done. Now on to World Peace.

This perspective is not only wishful, it represents precisely the opposite sensibility that we need in order to promote peace and social justice in the coming years. Not only must we re-dedicate ourselves to King's civil rights mission along with the peace mission, we must see the two as being so utterly linked that one cannot exist without the other. Far from mere rhetoric, King's legacy reminds us of the hard work that it takes to sustain these links. Ironically enough, maintaining the connections between King's Peace and Civil Rights legacies just got harder.

The most important inheritance we can receive from King is to draw strength from perhaps his most courageous act -- speaking out against a president who had championed Civil Rights at home and holding him morally accountable for his militaristic policies abroad. Simply put, President Lyndon Johnson was more progressive on Civil Rights than Lincoln (who wanted to send African Americans "back to Africa"), Roosevelt, and yes, sorry to say, even John Kennedy. While far from being the first openly black president, he was certainly the first Civil Rights president. As a result, he inspired tremendous loyalty from the civil rights constituency. Yet despite this reality, and against the temptation to turn a blind eye to the misdoings of influential allies, King did what his pragmatist colleagues found virtually unthinkable. He openly criticized Johnson's Vietnam war.

King's insistence that Peace be linked to Civil Rights made the last year of his life incredibly lonely and difficult. He was abandoned by many Civil Rights allies, cold-shouldered by the president, and lambasted by the New York Times and the Washington Post. Even his own organization, his beloved Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), officially distanced itself from his vision. One can barely imagine the turmoil of a man who was wrongly denounced by the politics of expediency and who left this world well before history would reveal that he had been right all along. So while it may be satisfying for us to imagine King rejoicing in the Great Beyond, if we really want to walk in his footsteps, we have to be willing to take the same risks for justice that King took then. Those risks weren't about just dreaming of a new world; they were also about breaking silences in order to turn those dreams into reality.

So how do we accept this legacy if we are to remain guided by his vision? Clearly, we must denounce militaristic approaches to global unrest and find life-affirming ways to end repressive cycles of violence rooted in discrimination, humiliation and despair. Surely those who understand King's philosophy of civil disobedience must reject the idea that the morality of bloodshed rests on whether the killers are or are not authorities of the state. Certainly, the man who eulogized four little girls in Birmingham would teach us to repudiate claims that the death of some children is defensible in pursuit of the security of others.

Those who are still moved by King's images of the "dark and desolate valley of segregation" and the "sweltering heat of oppression," would understand that the absence of War is not the presence of Peace. Surely those of us who listen to King's prescient words in his famous SCLC speech ("Where do we Go from Here: Chaos or Community?") understand that peace is the realization of justice, not the brutal repression or benign neglect of efforts to achieve it.

So, emboldened by King's legacy, what is the role of progressives in the age of an Obama presidency? First and foremost, we much realize that we will do our president a tremendous disservice if we fail to take up King's opposition to militarism and to all the silent forms of violence that lay waste to the human body and soul. We neither undermine nor compromise the extraordinary meaning of this remarkable presidency by holding it to every standard of peace and justice that brought us to the Obama campaign. We take absolutely nothing away from the historical significance of his presidency if we push very hard for peace and social justice. In fact, we need to be the wind that makes sure this presidency soars to the highest aspirations it has set for itself. And, if that means we will sometimes have to differ with President Obama over his policies and choices, we must understand that our goal is to change the relevant political equations enough for new possibilities to emerge.

Now, more than ever, our challenge will be to speak about the connections that King so vividly saw between war and various "isms" - racism, nationalism and the like - that will continue, notwithstanding the hue of the person in the White House. These problems remain evident in the very ways we Americans rationalize war as group punishment, frame war against "Others" as the only language that they understand, shield ourselves from their pain and despair, and export the despicable treatment of our own prisoners to our "enemies" around the world. King would want us to remember that the standard for how we treat Others will never transcend how we treat our Others here at home.

As King realized, our goals for Peace cannot be separated from racial justice, and yet we must confront the irony that even as we celebrate King's words we are being told by some that the relevance of the great "Race" men and women who walk in King's footsteps is all but over. Their continuing contributions are threatened today by a postscript that seems to be saying "your services are no longer needed." Hanging in the balance is the respect and appreciation for the thousands of unsung heroes in cities and towns across this country -- those who spent their entire lives doing exactly what we must do now: celebrate our victories while remaining fiercely vigilant about our long-term goals.

These heroes deserve so much more than to be labeled as yesterday's news, or worst still, as the Great Losers in the context of Obama's victory -- as Civil Rights advocates like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were labeled by pundits in the dizzying moments just after Barack Obama was pronounced the victor.

Resisting efforts to give both our known as well as unsung heroes the pink slip, we should work hard to lift their sacrifice and courage out of any post-racial exile. I am proud to lift up the name of one such warrior -- in part because she was so special to me (she was my mother) but also to thousands of people whose lives she inspired. Her life of activism spanned the 20th century. A true race woman of her generation, like Dr. King, she sustained a constant passion to do what was necessary to expand the scope of social justice through 50 years as a dedicated inner-city school teacher, community advocate and world-traveling internationalist. Marian Williams Crenshaw lived to see Barack Obama elected, but I know that in her elation over Obama's inauguration she would not give up her convictions about the urgent need to continue the fight for racial justice.

It's our responsibility as we go into this new era to remember the yearnings of the marginalized, and to work with the renewed hope that their aspirations will not be buried under the premature claims that this a "post-racial" era. And as we move forward from this remarkable moment, King offers us a compass.

Ending a letter in response to a former supporter who withdrew his financial contributions to SCLC because of his stance on Vietnam, King said: "Cowardice asked the question, is it expedient? Vanity asked the question -- is it popular? Conscience asks the question -- is it right." As we move forward in the coming years, let us all be guided by this penetrating insight to reject the expedient, the vain and the unethical, and to walk with courage and conviction into the struggles that await us.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor of law, specializes in civil rights, constitutional law and critical race studies. This article is based on comments she delivered at the 2009 Inaugural Peace Ball in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the inauguration of President Barack Obama and honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.