January 22, 2009 — Panelists speaking Wednesday at the University of Virginia critiqued the notion that President Barack Obama's election is a fulfillment of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of racial equality.
"The political heir of King, Obama is not," U.Va. assistant professor of history Claudrena Harold declared. "And to expect him to be is unfair."
Harold was joined by former U.Va. faculty member Corey Walker, now an assistant professor of Africana studies at Brown University, and Andrea Y. Simpson, associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond.
A committee comprising members of the offices of African-American Affairs, Diversity and Equity and the U.Va. president, plus the University Library, organized the panel, "King and Obama: The Dream, The Promise, The Fulfillment," in honor of King's birthday. Other sponsors included the Carter G. Woodson Institute and Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
Simpson said African Americans certainly should be happy about Obama's election, because it represents a victory for oppressed people. He won with support from many other ethnic groups in addition to black people, she pointed out.
Although Obama's election represents another first for African-American politicians, it is far from transforming American democracy, Walker said.
Simpson, who expressed her elation, tempered it with the sober reality that the U.S. has not come close to achieving economic equality and social justice.
"The U.S. is the leading jailer in the world," Simpson said, incarcerating 762 people for every 100,000, compared to other Western countries with much lower rates — for example, France's 91 prisoners for every 100,000. The U.S. number rises to 3,138 per 100,000 African American men, she said.
"The fallout is broken families, damaged children and poverty," she said.
Harold picked up that theme: "That a critical mass of people could even consider the idea that King¹s dream had been realized in a country involved in two wars and with a national poverty rate of 11 percent and a black poverty rate of 26 percent not only boggles the mind but burdens the soul."
The image of Martin Luther King Jr. has been transformed, from that of a menace to the political and social status quo during his lifetime to being simply an icon, Harold said. King's activism and ideas about the unequal distribution of wealth and the military-industrial complex have been simplified to the point of silence, she said.
She said she was disappointed in the left and black intelligentsia for being complicit in supporting a simplified version of King.
"We intellectuals haven't done the work of understanding how class politics intersects with African American politics," she added.
We ought not to memorialize King solely for his "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of Washington's Lincoln Memorial, Walker said. "Instead, we should wrestle with the inconvenient hero who took great risks on behalf of hope in service to, and in solidarity with, the least among us."
Walker said the choices President Obama made for his economic and foreign policy teams reflect the same fundamental beliefs in the unfettered marketplace and in American imperialism that King fought against.
To meet the challenges King posed for America, the gap must be bridged between reality and the ideals of spreading American democracy — which Walker called a form of U.S. imperialism — and follow a new vision of interrelatedness based on cooperation, not competition.