Millions of Barack Obama's supporters are asking, "What does he do now?" Everyone following the presidential campaign has heard sound bites of his pastor Jeremiah Wright condemning American racism and imperialism in the harshest tone possible. In response, Obama has once again been forced to distance himself from a close associate, but this time he has had to do so more forcefully and urgently.
The first thing we need to do is to put this development into context. On the surface level, it is a critical moment in a bitterly contested campaign that has devolved into a back-and-forth match of denouncing and rejecting surrogates. But on a deeper level, it is a reflection of how Obama's success has forced him to rise to bigger and bigger challenges. And for this reason, a moment like this was sadly inevitable, for there is no Obama path to the presidency that does not require him to rise above charges that he is unpatriotic or that he is a black extremist. Such is the inescapable reality of running for president as a progressive African American whose formative experiences came as an inner-city community organizer on the South Side of Chicago.
When confronting a moment of crisis, great leaders are those who can see through the fog of conflict and contradiction to envision a concrete path forward for the nation. What must also be understood is that great leaders do so not as individuals; they do so with the encouragement, involvement, and constructive criticism of millions of supporters. This is why there is a need not only for Obama and his aides to do some serious strategizing. Anyone invested in the short-term and long-term success of his campaign must do some soul searching and some deep thinking about the past, present, and future of America.
To challenge Obama and his supporters in this way, regardless of whether it is fair to do so, is to provoke an unprecedented debate that escalates the stakes beyond any election in recent memory. In order for his campaign to move beyond this crisis, he must do far more than prove that he does not stand for inflammatory rhetoric. Obama must redefine the meaning of love for America. And he must tell Americans how and why it is essential that creating a brighter future necessitates that we be honest about our past.
The last great American to recognize and embrace this titanic challenge was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And so we must turn to King. We honor MLK with birthday celebrations. But do we really recognize what made him the most profound political and philosophical voice of the past century in America? Particularly during the last few years of his life-as the Northern backlash stunted the progress of the Civil Rights Movements, Nixon's Southern Strategy was taking root, the cultural revolutions of the sixties advanced, the antiwar protests began to overflow into the streets, and the nation's cities erupted in rebellions-King's search for deeper answers to national and global crises provoked him to confront some hard truths.
Exposing the "unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans," MLK proclaimed "the disease of racism [had permeated] a whole body politic." While some politicians and other observers cast aspersion on the urban rebellions through a narrow discourse of law and order, he called upon all Americans to see them as products of history. As King wrote in "Showdown for Nonviolence" (1968):
There is an Old Testament prophecy of the "sins of the Fathers being visited upon the third and fourth generations." Nothing could be more applicable to our situation. America is reaping the harvest of hate and shame planted through generations of educational denial, political disfranchisement and economic exploitation of its black population. Now, almost a century removed from slavery, we find the heritage of oppression and racism erupting in our cities, with volcanic lava of bitterness and frustration pouring down our avenues.
But King was uncompromising in his denunciation of the violence that had broken out in "the ghettoes of the North." He didn't just view the violence as counterproductive. King believed it was crucial to tell these "desperate, rejected, and angry young men" that continuing down a violent path would permanently damage their souls. This in turn would damage the soul of a Black movement that had a vital role to play in transforming America.
King resolutely understood that the nation's greatest potential could only be achieved when the American people were ready to confront the hard truths he preached about. And that those who had suffered from the worst instances of racism and injustice had both a special insight into the meaning of democracy and a special role to play in fulfilling the promise of America. This is what made King the bearer of a true patriotism.
Yet, to "maintain his conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action," MLK was moved break his silence on the Vietnam War. Being consistent with his moral vision necessitated that he oppose this unjustified violence that had broken out on a far greater scale and was now threatening to kill the soul of America. It was time "to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history." Thus, King declared, "I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today-my own government."
Not out of hatred but out of love for humanity, King condemned an American military campaign that sent its soldiers "to slaughter men, women and children" and construct "concentration camps we call fortified hamlets." He added his assertion that such dehumanizing actions were not just the outgrowth of a failed war; they also fit a historical pattern shaped by the ideology of colonial domination. As King stated in The Trumpet of Conscience (1967):
The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.
Still, King insisted that the hard truths of American racism and imperialism could never serve as a justification for any action driven by anger. In his quest to build the beloved community, he called for those in his movement to channel their energy into a new love for America: "I say to you that our goal is freedom, and I believe we are going to there because however much she strays away from it, the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be as a people, our destiny is tied up in the destiny of America."
Thus, King remained a bearer of faith and hope, even as his forceful stands caused him to lose support from moderate and liberal politicians, even as his "controversial" actions led many of his fellow civil rights leaders to distance themselves from him, and even as he recognized that he was endangering his own life. He was far from naïve.
What King recognized was that the promise of America could only be fulfilled once we overcame the perils threatening to undermine that promise. As he concluded in "Showdown for Nonviolence":
The American people are infected with racism, that is the peril. Paradoxically, they are also infected with democratic ideals-that is the hope. While doing wrong, they have the potential to do right. But they do not have a millennium to make changes. Nor have they a choice of continuing in the old way. The future they are asked to inaugurate is not so unpalatable that it justifies the evils that beset the nation. To end poverty, extirpate prejudice, to free a tormented conscience, to make a tomorrow of justice, fair play and creativity-all these are worthy of the American ideal.
We have, through massive nonviolent action, an opportunity to avoid a national disaster and create a new spirit of class and racial harmony. We can write another luminous moral chapter in American history. All of us are on trial in this troubled hour, but time still permits us to meet the future with a clear conscience.
The sad reality was that not enough Americans were ready for King's message in 1968, and his opportunity to press on further was stolen from us. Forty years later, race relations have improved in some notable ways. But with another war raging, the economy potentially on the brink of a major collapse, and an environmental crisis of epic proportions, the challenge to build this country anew is even greater.
Barack Obama is not Martin Luther King. But, in my lifetime, no other American politician to reach Obama's current level of stature has hinted at the capacity both to understand the hard truths America must confront and to acknowledge the tremendous struggle it will take to unite Americans of all races to fulfill King's promise.
I will not venture to predict what will happen in upcoming elections. The questions I want to see answered are: Can Obama deliver a message of love for America that will at last liberate us from our fears and divisions? And, if so, is the America of 2008 ready to receive it?