The beautiful irony of today is that we observe the inauguration of an African-American President on Martin Luther King Day. I think this would be a very bittersweet moment for King if he were alive to witness the day’s events. Could he have imagined a black man in the White House within 45 years of his death? Perhaps, but I think he would be pleasantly surprised to know that we went from Jim Crow to Barack Obama in a single generation.
At the same time, I think he would be dismayed to see what has become of America in the intervening years. Were he standing at the dais giving a speech today, he would certainly be speaking out against the intolerable income disparity that exists in this country, where a small cabal of billionaires controls the vast majority of the nation’s wealth. He’d lament the weakening of labor unions and the ongoing hemorrhaging of investments and jobs to overseas destinations. He would heap scorn on the greed and avarice of Wall Street as it continues to turn its back on Main Street.
And I have no doubt he would lament the extremist security and national defense policies that have been implemented since 9/11. He would surely scold Washington for creating a perpetual state of war that fulfilled the Orwellian prophecy declaring war is peace and dissent is treason. Drones, Guantanamo, Afghanistan, a bloated defense budget, it would all draw King’s ire and condemnation. As others have pointed out, King was a radical both by 1960s standards and perhaps even more so by today’s. Calling Obama a socialist is laughable. Calling King a socialist would be much closer to the mark. In his later years, he was more and more critical of the abuses inherent in modern capitalism and accurately predicted were our greed and arrogance would take us as a country if the problems of economic disparity were not addressed. And of course, they weren’t.
I think King would take time to celebrate today’s inauguration, and would, if he were here, no doubt be a featured speaker. But he would tell us that as far as we had come, we have a very, very long way to go to fulfill the promise of the America he once foresaw in a dream.