Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

    MLK for a Moment?

    I was without cell phone reception and without access to radio, television or Internet throughout the vast majority of spring break. I heard nothing of the controversy surrounding Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his connection to Sen. Obama until a friend told me that Obama had just given a speech on race, a purported “Martin Luther King Moment.”

    This speech can be designated in two ways. Most obviously, it can be seen for its face value, for a political reaction to a block of dynamite on the campaign tracks, for a Speech on Race. It seems this is how the media has chosen to view it. This is fine, and merits its own analysis.

    When I read the op-ed section of the New York Times, I hear William Kristol invoking a Nixon White House staffer to argue that “the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect.'” A national conversation on race, he says, is not necessary. The title of his piece? “Let’s Not, and Say We Did.”

    Explain to me, Mr. Kristol, how you would handle the following situation: You are captain of a ship. One of your crew has been thrown overboard in a storm, but she is a good swimmer. It is possible that she could make it to the shore on the strength of her own strokes, but it is in no way certain. Many others have perished in these murky waters. Do you smile at her as she waves for help, offer a blessing, and carry on? To offer benign neglect is to allow the subjective and slanted norms in society to go unquestioned. The term itself is an oxymoron. Inaction is the death of progress, and there is nothing benign about that.

    The speech behind The Speech, though, seems to have been ignored. It is ironic that when I first heard of the speech, it was spoken of as a “Martin Luther King Moment.” What does that really mean? What is a MLK Moment?

    I don’t know whether or not Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” lives up to the legacy of Dr. King. These days, that legacy is most prominently denoted by an honorary street name (“Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard” is scrawled in miniscule white letters on thin green signs on a street in Portland; a major cross-street was just renamed “Rosa Parks Way” for the convenience of having them intersect). His words are summoned on a special day in January, his cause channeled during a special month. We have sliced and diced the legacy of Dr. King into parcels and sound bites.

    Similarly, to look at Obama’s speech on race as a Speech on Race is to reduce the complexity of meaning in his words; indeed, to ignore complexity itself. You can take Obama’s elegant phrases as merely an address to the Race Issue. You can read the text of his speech in your classroom on MLK Day, or anytime in February.

    Or, you can acknowledge that Obama’s speech is an extension of the motto he has for this country, a motto that’s well represented by the Race Issue. In Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he writes, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” What are both men saying? The Race Issue is so much more than an issue about race. Racial understanding and equality is important for its inherent merits and especially for what it says about America.

    We must do more than acknowledge our interconnectedness, we must work to enhance it. We must work for A More Perfect Union. It is a message appropriate on any day of the year.

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