Hold the Applause
January 23, 2009 – Published by Workers World
History could not have created a more poignant scene. In the midst of what may be the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression in a country known for its racial injustice, the United States elected its first Black president. Walking out amid a sea of screaming supporters—the majority of them African-American—Barack Obama (cool, calm and collected) stepped up to the podium and announced, “Change has come to America!”
Given the past eight years of the Bush administration with its long train of abuses and human rights violations, it’s virtually impossible to argue against the notion that by the mere act of electing a new president, America has entered into a new era of transformation.
Some have even gone as far as to call it a “post-racial” era and claim that we have finally arrived at the much ballyhooed “promised land” that the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about before his untimely death in 1968.
Indeed, the spirit of Dr. King has loomed large over Obama’s meteoric rise to political prominence, and one would have to be blind not to see the similarities. However, in focusing on these similarities, it’s important to note that the comparisons are being made with the minister who gave the famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
It was in this speech that Dr. King evoked images of a color-blind society. But what many people don’t know is that, by the time he was assassinated (and many would argue, the reason why he was assassinated), Dr. King had undergone a transformation in his thinking and had begun to shed many of his illusions about race in America.
More than the color of skin, he began to comprehend that it was the system of capitalism itself, which uses race as a weapon to shield and conceal a very unjust economic arrangement, that was the true culprit of inequality in America. After all the marching and sitting-in had produced the much-demanded “Civil Rights Act of 1964” and the “National Voting Rights Act of 1965,” he found that for the poorest citizens things were pretty much the same and that those in power intended them to remain so.
In what turned out to be a fateful decision, Dr. King decided to travel to Memphis, Tenn., in order to lend his voice to poor sanitation workers who were agitating for higher wages and safer working conditions. It was here among poor, working-class citizens that he exhibited the pivotal shift to asking, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated counter if he doesn’t earn enough to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” He issued a challenge to those who gathered to hear him speak:
“Don’t go back on the job until the demands are met [cheers]. Never forget that freedom must be demanded by the oppressed. Freedom is not some lavish dish that the power structure will voluntarily hand out on a silver platter while [we] merely furnish the appetite [applause]. If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for it.” (Michael K. Honey, “Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign,” pp. 302-303)
These words, spoken over 40 years ago, are just as relevant today as in 1968. If we are going to build a better world for our children, if we are going to stop those in power from taking our homes, our jobs and our freedom, we are going to have to struggle for it. Achieving real change is going to require that the whole system of corporate capitalism be completely dismantled, and the only way to do this is by coming together and speaking truth to power.
How fitting is it, then, that Martin Luther King Day falls on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration. Before we witness the first Black man to become the 44th president of the U.S., we should reflect on what would have been on Dr. King’s mind during this momentous occasion.
Although he fought long and hard for Black people to be treated equally, I doubt that he would be in a celebrating mood. He would be proud, yes, but foremost on his mind would be the 9,000 people a day who are losing their homes; the 2.2 million who have lost their jobs; the over 2 million who are behind bars; the hundreds who are still being unlawfully detained at Guantánamo Bay; the thousands who are fighting in unjust wars; and the billions of poor people around the world who are living on less than $3 a day while giant corporations pay out multimillion dollar bonuses to their senior executives. Pondering these things, he would know that we have not yet arrived and he would implore us to, please, hold the applause.