If he were alive today, Martin Luther King, Jr. would certainly take pride in the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama.
King would likely support the Obama administration on a whole host of domestic policy issues, including health care, women’s rights, and infrastructure spending.
But based on King’s vocal opposition to the Vietnam War and the United States’ perpetual state of war, he would definitely speak truth to power when it comes to President Obama’s somewhat hawkish use of the military-industrial complex.
In 1967, in an interview with NBC News, Dr. King said reflecting back on his now famous “I Have A Dream” speech said:
I must confess that that dream that I had that day, has at many points turned into a nightmare. Now I’m not one to lose hope. I keep on hoping. I still have faith in the future. But I’ve had to analyze many things over the last few years, and I would say over the last few months. I’ve gone through a lot of soul-searching and a lot of agonizing moments, and I’ve come to see that we have many more difficult days ahead and some of the old optimism was a little superficial, and now it must be tempered with a little solid realism. And I think the realistic fact is that we have a long, long way to go and that we are involved in a war on Asian soil, which if not checked and stopped can poison the very soul of our nation…The war makes it infinitely more difficult to deal with these problems…It’s much more difficult to really arouse a conscience during a time of war. There is something about a war like this that makes people insensitive. It dulls the conscience, it strengthens the forces of reaction and it brings into being bitterness, and hatred and violence.
In the years between the March on Washington and this NBC News interview, Dr. King had spoken out vehemently against the Vietnam War.
His speech at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” explained his war opposition in terms of America’s war obsession derailing it from domestic goals like the War on Poverty:
There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
To put Dr. King in an American reality of a decade more or war in the Middle East, confronting the developing disaster in Syria would put President Obama right at odds with Dr. King’s anti-war legacy.
That isn’t to say that the president is to blame for wars that began before he took office and the still-lingering consequences, but that America’s response to the latest chemical weapons attack in Syria could be an opportunity for the president as he delivers an historic speech on this occasion Wednesday.
Dr. King’s ‘dream’ remains deferred for many people of color and the poor in America and his outspoken opposition to military conflict rings true now more than ever. Analysis of class disparities and viewing poverty and inequality through a global lens has been stripped from the mainstream public history of Dr. King’s legacy, but his views on American military involvement are difficult to misinterpret.
With the nation’s infrastructure crumbling and Congress in complete disarray — calling for cuts to food stamps but not to the bulk of the defense budget — President Obama demonstrates the structural limitations in fulfilling this vision in Dr. King’s legacy because he is the Commander and Chief and not an activist speaking freely.
While black unemployment remains unacceptably high and income inequality is growing by the second, the limits of executive power do not easily facilitate President Obama’s fulfillment of Dr. King’s vision, at home or abroad.
Follow Zerlina Maxwell on Twitter at @ZerlinaMaxwell.