Was Barack Obama’s Presidential election a sign of Martin Luther King’s “dream” coming true? The national press led us to believe so. During the days leading up to the presidential inauguration, national broadcast and print journalism repeatedly underscored the importance of Obama’s election through references to King and his 1963 speech at the March on Washington. Reporters quoted public officials, citizens, and former civil rights activists who described Obama’s election as the “fulfillment,” “embodiment,” “culmination,” and “validation” of King’s dream. To some extent, this makes sense. The inauguration took place the day after Martin Luther King Day, and Obama delivered a pre-inauguration address in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the same location where King delivered his 1963 speech.
More than drawing attention to the time and location of the inaugural celebration, however, these references to King invited audiences to understand the Obama presidency as the culmination of the civil rights struggle. Former civil rights activist Walter Fauntroy told reporters on NBC’s Dateline, “Martin Luther King's dream stated 40 years ago we, as a people, are going to get to the promised land. . . . That dream came true on November 4th, 2008.” CNN reported that two thirds of American-Africans now believed that King’s dream has been fulfilled, and that this proportion had doubled during the presidential campaign. Another vivid example is a 114 page historical retrospective magazine entitled Obama: The Dream Fulfilled which chronicles Obama’s inauguration in the context of the “hard struggle for equality in the United States.” The magazine opens with the statement that, “it’s clear that the Dream of Dr. King has come a long way. While bigotry and ignorance may still exist, America has now, more than ever before, perhaps faster than anyone thought, fulfilled its promise as the land of opportunity.”
Taken altogether, the wide variety of news reports that connected Obama to King’s legacy suggests the traumatic legacy of racial injustice in the United States has been overcome. I argue that this coverage constructs a narrative of racial transcendence that obscures the racial injustices that persisted after the civil rights era of black activism. Reports and commentary characterizing Obama’s election as the realization of King’s dream were complemented by comments that advanced a post-racial understanding of Obama’s success. According to post-racial logic, advancements made by individual black Americans are evidence of progress toward racial justice. By extension, Obama’s election signaled that African-Americans had opportunities for economic and political achievement.
I argue that the depiction of the Obama Presidency as the embodiment of Martin Luther King’s dream is troubling because it depends on selective amnesia, or the negation of a more complex history of black activism in the United States. None of these reports acknowledged events that took place in the years between 1965 and Obama’s election such as King’s Poor People’s campaign of 1967 and the Black Power movement that grew at the end of the decade. These movements developed in response to black communities’ deep-seated frustration with programs meant to alleviate the harshest conditions of endemic poverty in the US. Most of these reports also excluded black leaders such as Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, or Fannie Lou Hamer who were committed to the expressed interests of the black majority and who did not reap material rewards from early civil rights initiatives.
News coverage of Obama’s inauguration also distorted King’s own political commitments by reducing his career to his 1963 speech. Following the March on Washington and the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, King was increasingly disillusioned with mainstream politics, and was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and capitalism. During the election campaign, Obama voiced support for sending U.S. troops into Afghanistan and working with Wall Street to reform the national economy. Given King’s dissatisfaction with mainstream politics, he might not have wholeheartedly embraced Obama’s candidacy were he still alive. By ignoring such goals as economic parity and the end to imperialistic wars, the narrative of transcendence surrounding Obama’s inauguration crafts a thin version of civil rights that hollows out its substantive criticisms of racial disparity and exploitation of people of color in the United States.
Perhaps most importantly, the depiction of Obama’s election as the culmination of the civil rights struggle was a distraction from contemporary instances of racial injustice such as the arrest of Henry Louis Gates in 2009, the stiff sentences meted out to the Jena 6 in Louisiana in 2007, the devastation of New Orleans’ 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the thousands of civilian casualties resulting from ongoing US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. By depicting Obama’s election as the embodiment of civil rights −rather than as an opportunity for public policy on behalf of racial minorities− coverage of the inauguration suggests that protest and dissent on behalf of racial justice is unnecessary. In short, this coverage put activism on behalf of racial minorities in the past even though racial injustice remains in the present.
News coverage of Obama’s inauguration is part of a broader set of narratives of racial transcendence that have relegated activism to the past. A year after Obama’s election, the motion picture The Blind Side presented a story in which a Southern white woman adopted a black adolescent despite the racial prejudices of her friends and neighbors. Last year, The Help depicted another progressive white young woman who sought to expose the racial exploitation of black domestic workers in her Mississippi hometown. Although these narratives are loosely based on real-life events, they encourage us to understand racism as the consequence of closed-minded individuals, rather than as the outcome of an economic and political system that has operated through the exploitation of people of color and of lower class status. Although many New Orleans neighborhoods have been rebuilt, the 9th Ward is still in ruins. This disparity is largely the result of inequities in government-subsidized house reconstruction grants that have predominantly aided white Katrina victims. The ongoing devastation of the 9th Ward highlights the tragic consequences of structural racism.
Those of us committed to racial justice should draw connections between historic movements for racial justice and contemporary racial inequities. In doing so, we should also attend to the cultural narratives that promote selective amnesia. By remembering activist communities that have been routinely excluded from narratives of national unity and progress, we may enrich our resources for envisioning social change and find new avenues for attaining social justice.