We seem to be living in a bizarro alternate universe where Republican politicians are against another imperial military adventure in the Middle East and Nancy Pelosi is all for it. Donald Rumsfeld – who ten years ago wanted to invade the whole of the region, one country after another – now vocally opposes a strike on Syria.
Obama will seek approval from Congress after losing British support and coming under pressure from the Senate and the House, but his success is by no means certain. Like Cameron’s failure to get backing from British MPs, this signals the undermining of executive power as a consequence of its over-reach over the last ten years. Juan Cole points out that the legacy of the false justification for the Iraq war hung over the British parliament; in Washington, the legacy includes an ongoing military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and the further revelations of NSA spying.
Obama is prepared to use executive power to launch wars on the other side of the world, but he shows no sign of using it to further the fight against social inequality in the US. This dissonance made Wednesday’s commemoration of the March on Washington an embarrassing travesty: while Martin Luther King preached nonviolence to achieve social change, the president who was elected on the back of the achievements of the civil rights movement channeled the outlook of the military-cyber-industrial complex.
Dana Milbank noted the corporate atmosphere of the event: “The original march was a challenge to the established order. The sequel was a rally of the powerful, including three presidents. There were special entrances for ‘ticketed guests.’ There was a $132-per-person ‘I Have a Dream’ brunch at the Willard Hotel (with ‘commemorative Martin Luther King keepsake’).”
Obama berated the desire for government support as “denying agency in our own liberation,” but told ordinary citizens that just by being good citizens (or businessmen paying a fair wage) they were changing the world for the better. He praised the original marchers in terms of dutiful citizenship but minimized the legacy of civil disobedience. “Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day, that change does not come from Washington but to Washington, that change has always been built on our willingness, we, the people, to take on the mantle of citizenship – you are marching,” he declaimed.
In contrast to King, who sought to inspire his supporters to empower themselves through political struggle, Obama recast protest as obeying the law rather than questioning the basis of its fairness. By divorcing social issues from government he urged citizens to leave politics to the political elite – a “trust us” message that buttresses the role of centralized executive power and furthers the agenda for a security state.
The genius of Martin Luther King lay in his ability to connect all the strands of the movement for social justice and simultaneously inspire and give it direction. He had realized how the struggle for civil rights could be translated into a mass political movement that put pressure on the Kennedy administration. The confrontations he led in Alabama were aimed at impacting the political consciousness of the nation.
The 1963 March on Washington is remembered today as a march over civil rights, but it was originally planned by union activists to protest growing unemployment and discrimination against African-Americans in northern cities. It was only after Bull Connor used attack dogs and high-pressure hoses against children in Birmingham that civil rights got national attention and rose to the top of the agenda.
According to historian Taylor Branch, “[King] took a stupefying risk in Birmingham to allow not only high school students, but elementary school students, to take the place of a dwindling number of adult volunteers who were discouraged. And instead of 10 or 15, which is what the daily quota had finally dwindled down to be, they had over a thousand students march, downtown Birmingham, and were met with dogs and fire hoses on May 2nd and May 3rd. It was a stupefying gamble in his career … before that breakthrough, the sides were in gridlock over segregation in America. … After Birmingham, everybody was raising questions.”
King’s leading role in transforming the political discourse is made clear in a phone call that was recorded by the FBI, cited in a New York Times book review. “ ‘We are on the threshold of a significant breakthrough, and the greatest weapon is the mass demonstration,’ King told his close friend Levison… Because of Birmingham, King went on, ‘we are at the point where we can mobilize all of this righteous indignation into a powerful mass movement,’ and even the mere threat of a march on Washington might so ‘frighten’ President Kennedy that he would send a meaningful civil rights bill to Congress.”
King’s articulation of his dream – that all men are created equal – was a triumph of imagination, an ideal that succeeded in strengthening and encouraging civil rights campaigners who daily confronted jail or death, making it a moral imperative by couching it in the language of the Declaration of Independence and of the Gospels. This language spanned the racial divide to inspire whites as well as blacks and isolate segregationists.
His speech was addressed directly to those who had come “fresh from narrow jail cells,” the “veterans of creative suffering.” He told them to “continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”
The substance of King’s rhetoric, and what still resonates today, is the ideal of justice that mobilized the tremendous sacrifices involved in carrying out this campaign of civil disobedience in the most difficult conditions in 1963. The substance of Obama’s rhetoric, on the other hand, is support for the status quo. He seeks to undermine popular sovereignty by telling citizens to go about their business without protesting the authority of the executive to authorize NSA surveillance, the jailing of whistleblowers, and force-feeding foreign nationals imprisoned in Guantanamo.
King’s dream persists not because of the grandiose ceremonies last week, but because of the struggles of ordinary workers throughout the country for a living wage, and the struggle of Chicago teachers to defend the right to education. It lives in the actions of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, and the growing popular resistance to the security state and military intervention in Syria. The ideal of justice is alive in the people, and that is why freedom will ring.