Whose heir is Obama?

From my own experience I know how John F. Kennedy electrified a generation of youth. Because my father was his friend and biographer, I was fortunate to have known him. Kennedy came to my home in Williamstown when I was a small boy. My family and I visited him in his Georgetown home during the 1960 primaries. As a seventh grader I rented a television set so that my whole school could watch the inauguration. I listened to his inaugural address till I knew it by heart. When JFK was killed, network television trailers encamped at our home on Park Street, and our living room turned into a TV studio for a stream of interviews with my father about his friend.

I revered Kennedy. His magnetism helped propel my own commitment to justice and peace. But my hero did not bring about change, at least at home. He did nothing for civil rights, or to fight poverty, so devoted was he to waging the Cold War. He did nothing, that is, until near the end of his presidency the raging civil rights movement finally drove him to propose the civil rights bill that he had tried to avoid. Change came from the irresistible mass pressure of the Birmingham movement in May 1963 and the “Negro revolution” that summer, climaxing in the luminous March on Washington that I joined as a 14-year-old.

After the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed Congress, King told President Johnson that the time had come for a law to enfranchise all Americans. LBJ said it was out of the question. Yet within weeks the Selma movement, capping several years of voting rights organizing in the rural South led by Bob Moses and his courageous SNCC cadres, forced Johnson to champion a strict voting rights bill that he pummeled through Congress.

Flash forward to 2008. My concern about Barack Obama is that, like JFK’s daughter Caroline believes, he would be “a president like my father.” He would be idolized like I did Kennedy, he would inspire young people to turn their lives to public service – this is vital – but as president he would do little to move us forward.

Is it enough, in these troubled times, to elect a president who can inspire people to be active citizens – but who compromises with the corporate special interests and congressional barons that dominate our polity? That was Kennedy’s legacy.

Senator Obama evokes the words and timbre of Dr. King. But if he looks to King for lessons, the civil and human rights leader might counsel a bolder response to “the fierce urgency of now.”

First, King might urge Obama to clarify his goals. The senator’s plans for ending the Iraq war and reforming health care seem muddled. Although he has long opposed the war, his withdrawal plan sounds too much like President Nixon’s prolonged effort to “wind down” the Vietnam War. If his health care proposal would not cover everybody – the bottom-line hope for many Americans – he needs to make clear what its advantage is over Hillary’s more universal plan.

King’s paramount goals of ending legal segregation and enfranchising African Americans shone as moral beacons for the nation. King like Obama was a master of symbolic politics, but King’s moral substance gave the symbols their light and fire. What are the concrete changes that Obama stands for? What is the great moral cause that, in another day, followers would have been called upon to risk their lives for? The new politics that Obama strives to build must have not only audacity of hope in the heart, but moral fire in the belly.

No American leader championed tolerance and reconciliation as boldly as King. But his relationship-building rhetoric was always authenticated by resolute action for specific justice. He fought tooth and nail for his goals until his nonviolent armies could push no further. Some criticized him for sitting at the table with white supremacists. Yet his adversaries met their match in Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma, forced to surrender. Like King, Obama must learn how to mobilize the American people to empower his words, to back them up with massive citizen pressure. As civil rights leader Ella Baker said about King, “Martin didn’t make the movement. The movement made Martin.”

Moreover, King set forth a bountiful vision that added up to more than the sum of his specific aims. Toward the end of his life he fought for a comprehensive bill of economic and social rights that included universal health care and other guarantees of economic justice. What if Obama took a leap of faith and raised a new moral beacon before the American people, that of a Second Bill of Rights to reverse the blight of economic inequality that is impoverishing our nation physically, morally and spiritually.

If elected president, he will be hindered from fighting for real change unless we keep the pressure on. We must take responsibility for holding his feet to the figurative fire, to make sure that, unlike John Kennedy, he delivers on his promises. We cannot afford to wait, even two or three years, for change to come – in particular for the Iraq war to end, and for universal health care to save lives and communities.

To talk about making real change, which the racist incidents on campus make all the more pressing, come to the BISA Leadership Conference: Framing a Second Bill of Rights, Sat., Feb. 23, Paresky performance space.

Stewart Burns is coordinator of community engagement and special academic programs and is the author of “To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Mission to Save America”

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