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"Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily."
Martin Luther King Jr.
Why We Can't Wait
"We can't wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job. Where they won't act, I will."
We Can't Wait
The problem is not as deep. The moment is not as historic. So President Obama's new slogan rates one less word than the title of Rev. King's 1963 book.
Like any campaign catchphrase, especially in the Internet era, the president's motto will quickly fade away, replaced by another focus group-tested saying. Unlike King's writing, it won't be found in public libraries 50 years hence, properly considered a book worthy of inclusion in what philosopher Mortimer J. Adler called the American Testament, bound with the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address.
The president may also regret mimicking a phrase identified with the martyred leader of the American Civil Rights Movement. Much of Obama's appeal, after all, has been how his ascent supposedly signifies the coming of a post-racial America, free of identity politics.
But, toward the end of his ministry and his life, King was moving toward a post-racial approach, too. He was noticing that while overt, legally sanctioned racism was the most obvious evil, there were many people of all races trapped alongside "the Negro" in soul-grinding poverty. King's fame began as the leader of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, which began and ended as a matter of racial justice. But his life ended as he was preparing to take to the streets in a labor dispute, the 1968 Memphis garbage strike, which was a matter of dignity for workers of all races. And as he and his colleagues were planning their Poor People's Campaign, which led, after King's death, to a short-lived encampment on the Washington Mall called Resurrection City.
In between was the 1963 March on Washington, scene of the "I Have a Dream" speech. That event's official title, we may forget, was "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." All are examples that the leaderless Occupy movement might want to study.
The heartbreaking example King gave of how segregation amounted to an act of emotional violence was his image of an honest black man fumbling to explain to his tearful 6-year-old daughter that they couldn't go to the local amusement park because it was, by custom and by law, segregated.
Today, the example is of a parent, of any race, explaining to his or her child, not that they can't go ride a roller coaster, but that they have to move out of their home, perhaps giving up most of their possessions, even family pets, because there are no jobs, the bank has foreclosed, whether it had the legal right to or not, and the security the child has known will suddenly be replaced by an apartment, a relative's basement or a homeless shelter.
This is the moral crisis of our time. King today would certainly see the growing disparity between rich and poor, the legally approved underpinnings of regressive taxation, reduced spending for education and welfare, health care priced out of reach, foreclosures that proceed despite flaws in documentation and, sometimes, downright fraud committed by lenders, as the moral successors to segregation.
Perhaps Barack Obama should more overtly pick up the mantle of Martin Luther King, not because they share a common skin pigmentation, but because their eras share a need for someone to speak truth to power. Or to speak truth from a position of power.