Monday’s Inauguration Day ceremonies were a dangerous insult to the memory and message of Martin Luther King Jr.
The day was layered in meaning: the president’s swearing-in projected onto the backdrop of M.L. King Day. It was scripted in history, a day of photographs and marching bands and national feel-goodery.
But through such casualness, we distort the ghost of King while bestowing blessing on the figure of authority he would have never agreed with.
The worst moment of all? When Obama swore the oath of office using a favorite Bible of Dr. King’s.
By doing so, Obama promised to uphold the office of commander-in-chief, giving him a throne of power over the largest military — and its budget — the world has ever known.
This is, exactly, what Dr. King preached against.
“We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls ‘enemy,’ for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers,” King said in his April 1967 anti-war sermon, “A Time to Break the Silence.”
(A commander-in-chief cannot make such statements. It is impossible; one cannot serve both masters.)
Calling the American government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” King condemned the over-militarization of our country and its economy.
A nation that spends more on weapons than social programs, King warned, will soon reach spiritual death.
(This was in 1967. What is the condition of our national spirit today, decades later?)
In his time, Obama has done little to slow the illegal violence of Guantanamo Bay, put great emphasis on the use of overseas drones and signed off on a military budget that is ungodly in scope, size and reach.
Yesterday’s dual mindedness — Obama meets King, commander-in-chief meets nonviolent prophet — sent the message that America can have both. It can’t.
Since his death, King has been whitewashed. We’ve reduced him to a one-dimensional, I-Have-A-Dream figure, happy and content now that a black man is president.
Yes, King entered our national script as someone bound in the fight against racism. But in the 1960s, his vision expanded to include poverty, materialism and the militarization of our consciousness.
By sanitizing King, we keep him safe in our collective memory as someone palatable and easy to remember. We build memorials. Commission official postage stamps. Take a day off work.
And forget the heart of what he said and did.
“A true revolution of values will lay hands 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,” he preached.
“We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
One year after making this speech, King was shot in the head and killed.
(Tuesday’s online-only column normally focuses on the connection between 21st century events and the popular “Downton Abbey.” It will return next Tuesday.)
Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...