This evening, as I was driving home from Phoenix, NPR was playing Dr. King's Why I Oppose the War In Vietnam speech. I got distracted and missed my exit. That may not have been causal -- I don't usually come that way and have missed that exit before -- but it was the first time I'd heard the audio and it certainly had my attention.
Kudos to NPR for acknowledging King's more controversial later years -- every year at this time, we see the usual round of King retrospectives, and too often they skip from I Have a Dream to the assassination, glossing over his outspoken opposition to the war and his focus on economic inequality.
I also just read Barack Obama's speech from the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and it reminded me why he struck such a chord in '04. The man gives a damn fine speech, and today he delivered one worthy of being spoken from Dr. King's own pulpit.
But I am a cynic.
Obama says, "The Scripture tells us that we are judged not just by word, but by deed." Very well. "We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them" are some very pretty words. But touring with the vehemently anti-gay Donnie McClurkin was a not-so-pretty deed. And his backpedaling explanation that McClurkin isn't anti-gay but only wants to cure "unhappy gays" is not only political weaselry, it's also the plot of X-Men 3.
"It is not enough to decry the disparities of health care and yet allow the insurance companies and the drug companies to block much-needed reforms" -- those are pretty words too. Words which lead me to wonder why Obama wants the insurance companies and the drug companies to help him write his healthcare plan.
Obama says a lot of pretty -- hell, downright inspiring -- things. But in 2006 he voted for a non-binding withdrawal plan for the Iraq War over Kerry and Feingold's bill to set a date. In 2005 he voted to renew the PATRIOT Act. Judged not just by word but by deed indeed, Senator.
Two years ago The Boondocks produced one of the finest half-hours of television I have ever seen, an episode titled "Return of the King" which explored the premise of Dr. King waking up from a 30-year coma in the modern era. At one point, King asks, "What happened, Huey? What happened to our people?" Huey responds, hesitantly, "I think...everyone was waiting for Martin Luther King to come back."
And that's the tragedy of the modern civil rights movement: for forty years, America has been waiting for Martin Luther King to come back. (It's also the tragedy of the current season of Boondocks, which has descended from this Peabody-winning meditation on our culture to jokes about movie ticket prices, and whose Katrina episode centered around Granddad trying to get rid of his mooching relatives, but that's a tangent.)
And for a nation and a movement so desperate to see Martin Luther King come back, it can be very tempting to mistake Barack Obama for him. He is an inspiring orator, and if he becomes President it will be the most significant step for racial equality since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But Obama is not Martin Luther King. I seldom find myself in the position of defending Hillary Clinton, but she was right when she said, "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a movement. He was gassed. He was beaten. He was jailed. And he gave a speech that was one of the most beautifully, profoundly important speeches ever written in America, the I Have a Dream speech." Obama, meanwhile, has sat quietly on the Senate floor and taken safe positions on controversial issues rather than risk his reputation for what he believes is right. (Clinton has too, of course -- even moreso, I would argue -- but that doesn't make the King/Obama contrast false.)
I also think Clinton has been attacked unfairly for her remark that it took LBJ to sign the Civil Rights Act. She wasn't impugning Dr. King's legacy, she was merely recognizing President Johnson's role -- and I don't think any rational person could argue that, had Richard Nixon been President in 1964, the act still would have passed.
All this to say...I hate politics. There are moments when Barack Obama's words inspire me, when I think of how he could be a great leader, how he could restore America's position in the world and, more, how he could bring us closer than ever to recognizing those self-evident truths that Jefferson mentioned back in 1776. I hear him speak of the continuing struggles for equality, not just racial but also sexual and economic, and I want to see a leader who can speak to the nation's conscience and make those dreams a reality.
But in the end, all available data show that he is just another politician. I may well mark his name on my ballot two weeks from now, but I fear that too will be an exercise in cynicism -- if I vote for him, it will not be because I trust him, but because I mistrust him less than I do Clinton.
I think it's hard to be an optimist in America in this day and age. Perhaps incremental improvement is all we can hope for. I can't say I think that's enough...but I guess I'll take it.