The tears flow down the faces of people of good will across the country today, as Barack Obama is sworn in as president of the United States. The dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrated on Monday, will have come closer to fulfillment.
For those of us who stood at Dr. King's side, we only wish that he would have been here to see this day. He would have been overjoyed, gratified at the realization of his fundamental belief that we could forge a more perfect union, that the Civil Rights Movement was essential to let America become America.
Barack Obama is a remarkable leader, who has demonstrated extraordinary talent for organization, gifts at communication, and strength of discipline. He comes to office with this country in the throes of the worst crisis since the Great Depression. Americans are rightfully scared about the months ahead. And in large numbers, they have invested their hopes in this young African American leader only recently introduced to most of them.
As Obama recognizes, he stands on broad and strong shoulders. It was everyday people who risked everything to force open the doors of opportunity. Dr. King understood that change could come only if the oppressed demanded it; the strong would never relinquish their privilege voluntarily. He called on us to appeal to the better angels of all people through non-violence. But he understood the need for struggle, for disturbing the tranquility of the present injustice to make the way for a new world.
In many ways, Obama reflects the teaching of Dr. King. He calls us to come together across the divides of race, of religion, of region. He understands that it is "we" the people, not "I" the leader that makes change. His watchword -" Yes, we can!"–came from the farm workers chant of Cesar Chavez, "si se puede." Like Dr. King, he calls us to service, to leave the routines of daily life to give ourselves to a higher purpose. Like Dr. King, he realizes that what government does, what the law is, is critical. Private charity is vital, but public priorities can open up doors or close them down.
But there is a necessary tension between the president and the citizen leader, between the politician and the moral voice. Dr. King was overjoyed when Kennedy won in 1960; Kennedy had reached out to him when King was in jail, and seemed to understand the need for change. Dr. King was elated when Johnson won in 1964, believing that he had the skills and the vision to help build a Great Society.
But even as he sought to work with these presidents, Dr. King kept on marching. He challenged both Kennedy and Johnson to go much farther than either thought possible. He knew that only citizens in motion could create the tension needed to overcome the forces of resistance.
While King was a sophisticated strategist, he did not relinquish his prophetic and moral voice. He broke with Johnson over the Vietnam War, for he understood that the war on poverty was being lost in the jungles of Vietnam, that building a world of justice could not take place under a rain of bombs.
Dr. King would be pushing hard now for economic justice. He would be calling for public investment in education and housing, for empowering workers and holding corporations accountable. He would be arguing for a change in priorities, reducing a military budget now as great as that of all the rest of the world, and investing that money to insure every child a fair and healthy start. He would rail against policies that bail out the Wall Street bankers that caused our crisis, and that ignore the working families and small businesses now getting crushed in the downturn. Why not provide students with the same 1% interest rates that the banks are getting? That would allow more students to go to college, and reduce the crippling burdens of the debts so many carry in order to graduate.
Across this country–indeed the world–people look to Obama for hope. Yet what the new president needs is a citizens' movement, independently pushing him to seek reforms far beyond those he now envisions. He needs citizen pressure to contradict the power of entrenched interests. Were Dr. King here today, he would celebrate the new president, and get back to work creating the movement that could challenge him–an example we would do well to follow.