Sunday, January 15, 2012

Good Crazy

While its certainly true that Martin Luther King, Jr is a hero to President Obama, the two of them made very different choices during very different times about how to work for change in this country. MLK specifically rejected the idea of running for office and instead chose the role of organizer and agitator. On the other hand, one of my favorite quotes about Obama comes from his wife, Michelle.

Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.

But both of them share what Rev. Joseph Lowery called "good crazy."



Here's Ta-Nehisi Coates making the connection.

Here is where Barack Obama and the civil rights leaders of old are joined -- in a shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity, something that subsequent generations lost. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. may have led African Americans out of segregation, and he may have cured incalculable numbers of white racists, but more than all that, he believed that the lion's share of the population of this country would not support the rights of thugs to pummel people who just wanted to cross a bridge. King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own. But it was the opposite. King's belief in white people was the ultimate show of strength: He was willing to give his life on a bet that they were no different from the people who lived next door.

As much venom and violence as poor white people in the south dished at MLK, he never hated them. He stood firmly against what they did, but he also understood where they were coming from and had empathy for them. Here's one of my favorite passages from his famous Drum Major Instinct sermon.

The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I'm in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking—calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. And then we got down one day to the point—that was the second or third day—to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, "Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. You're just as poor as Negroes." And I said, "You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you're so poor you can't send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march."

Now that's a fact. That the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white—and can't hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out.

Here's how President Obama conveyed that same message when he spoke at the dedication of the Martin Luther King memorial.

And just as we draw strength from Dr. King’s struggles, so must we draw inspiration from his constant insistence on the oneness of man; the belief in his words that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” It was that insistence, rooted in his Christian faith, that led him to tell a group of angry young protesters, “I love you as I love my own children,” even as one threw a rock that glanced off his neck.

It was that insistence, that belief that God resides in each of us, from the high to the low, in the oppressor and the oppressed, that convinced him that people and systems could change. It fortified his belief in non-violence. It permitted him to place his faith in a government that had fallen short of its ideals. It led him to see his charge not only as freeing black America from the shackles of discrimination, but also freeing many Americans from their own prejudices, and freeing Americans of every color from the depredations of poverty.

And so at this moment, when our politics appear so sharply polarized, and faith in our institutions so greatly diminished, we need more than ever to take heed of Dr. King’s teachings. He calls on us to stand in the other person’s shoes; to see through their eyes; to understand their pain. He tells us that we have a duty to fight against poverty, even if we are well off; to care about the child in the decrepit school even if our own children are doing fine; to show compassion toward the immigrant family, with the knowledge that most of us are only a few generations removed from similar hardships.

To say that we are bound together as one people, and must constantly strive to see ourselves in one another, is not to argue for a false unity that papers over our differences and ratifies an unjust status quo. As was true 50 years ago, as has been true throughout human history, those with power and privilege will often decry any call for change as “divisive.” They’ll say any challenge to the existing arrangements are unwise and destabilizing. Dr. King understood that peace without justice was no peace at all; that aligning our reality with our ideals often requires the speaking of uncomfortable truths and the creative tension of non-violent protest.

But he also understood that to bring about true and lasting change, there must be the possibility of reconciliation; that any social movement has to channel this tension through the spirit of love and mutuality.

If he were alive today, I believe he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there; that the businessman can enter tough negotiations with his company’s union without vilifying the right to collectively bargain. He would want us to know we can argue fiercely about the proper size and role of government without questioning each other’s love for this country -- with the knowledge that in this democracy, government is no distant object but is rather an expression of our common commitments to one another. He would call on us to assume the best in each other rather than the worst, and challenge one another in ways that ultimately heal rather than wound.

Lets be clear...what Martin Luther King and President Obama are asking us to do is hard. Its also why both of them have often been vilified by those who think that change comes from defeating your enemy rather than through reconciliation.

But on this day of Martin Luther King's birth, I believe in their vision (while often falling short of its implementation). And as Rev. Lowery said, if we can ever truly embrace what they're saying..."something crazy may happen in this country...oh Lawd!"

5 comments:

  1. Knocked it out of the park as per usual. As we can see via the long-standing accomplishments of Dr. King (as well as the record currently being amassed by President Obama): hope and optimism are two of the most profound, significant, and effective political choices in existence. Your essay describes this concept with perfection. ---gn

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  2. Anonymous Jan 15, 2012 08:53 AM
    Your excellent comment says it all for me! Thank you,

    @Jeanabella

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  3. Smartypants, you have become one of my very favorite bloggers because you so often capture and perfectly express what I think and feel, yet struggle to express. I'm so grateful to you for that.

    So often I see people on the left (Cornel West) comparing and contrasting President Obama negatively with Dr. King, and it astounds me. I see so much similarity in what motivates the two men, though the roles they've chosen are very different. My feeling is that President Obama has done a remarkable job of maintaining a clarity of idealistic purpose while navigating the rugged and difficult terrain of politics and governing. Frankly, I'm endlessly amazed at his ability to avoid losing the clarity of his goals. God surely blessed us with Dr. King as an example to follow. And I think our president has been faithful to that example.

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  4. Thanks so much Smartypants. You express so beautifully the essence of who we can be as a nation. Excellent post.

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  5. 'Afternoon, Ms. Pants

    Riiiight when I think you couldn't POSSibly encourage us and teach it and us any better....

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