What would MLK make of our current politics?

January 20, 2020 8:48 am
28th August 1963: American minister and civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr (1929 - 1968) waves to the crowd of more than 200,000 people gathered on the Mall during the March on Washington after delivering his 'I Have a Dream' speech, Washington, DC. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

28th August 1963: American minister and civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr (1929 – 1968) waves to the crowd of more than 200,000 people gathered on the Mall during the March on Washington after delivering his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Washington, DC. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

What would Dr. Martin King Jr. have thought about the 2020 Democratic presidential field?

My guess is King would look at the current roster of Democratic candidates and wonder aloud: “Where are the candidates of color?”

He would likely be excited at a woman being a top contender and encouraged that there have been Asian, gay and African-American candidates along the way. 

But he would likely be disappointed, just three years after MLK’s party lost the White House, that the road to victory through diversity seems to have been abandoned by Democrats. 

Two terms for Barack Obama would have no doubt lifted King’s pride and left him assured that his birth country was well on its way to becoming an equal and colorblind republic. But in the past three years, much has been done to roll back and even destroy aspects of Obama’s presidency to the point where his legacy is in jeopardy if we continue on the current path. 

According to a recent Washington Post poll, more than 8 in 10 black Americans say they believe Trump is a racist and that he has made racism a bigger problem in the country. Nine in 10 disapprove of his job performance overall.

President Donald Trump came to office determined to destroy most of Obama’s ideals and has been personally involved in trashing most of Obama’s achievements. Trump’s presidency doesn’t just threaten Obama’s legacy, it is a menacing reminder that historic events can be erased if a group of people decides to subvert the truth.

One reason why King might be distressed at the state of national politics is the absence of any candidate who can rightfully claim the mantle of the transformational Obama, who re-invented the office of president in a distinct way through his very presence.

He was an African-American in the Oval Office who had a black wife and black children, guaranteeing that nobody will ever think of the First Family as an exclusively all-white family unit again.

But the promise of Obama—and King—hasn’t been fulfilled by any means and the lack of any final 2020 candidates of color is troubling in the long view.

Trump’s corrosive leadership has clearly sparked a new breed of white nationalism that threatens our personal and public safety. 

Many white folks seem more comfortable—even emboldened —expressing racist sentiments, and there is more open  intolerance toward every group seen as “the other” than in many years. 

Cory Booker was the last African-American candidate to leave the 2020 presidential primary race; Booker was often chided as “Obama-lite” because of his attempts to mimic Obama’s cadence and draw attention to his candidacy by comparing himself to the first African-American present.

Booker actually had a similar resume to Obama in terms of education, political experience and personal achievement, but he lacked something vital the former president had going for him.

Michelle Obama and the Obamas’ two daughters gave Obama a veneer of comfortable security most voters still seem to expect from the person in the White House.

The fact that we no longer have an African-American candidate for president (apart from Duval Patrick, who is a long-shot) isn’t a death knell for future dreams of another Obama-like “Camelot” for African-Americans, but our eyes must remain on the prize.

Obama’s election wasn’t a fluke; people prepared for years to make it happen.

The lack of an Obama political infrastructure that could have been used to launch a 2020 candidate who could have been a rightful successor suggests that some people took it for granted that the next Obama would appear out of who-knows-where, God willing.

But electing a black president is like a team hiring their first black head coach or a city electing its first black mayor. 

In order for the plan to be successful, there has to be a field of black coaches or black mayors ready to keep the string going.

This year, Democratic voters are talking openly about whether it’s possible to elect a woman. But unless we are determined to do it, it won’t happen.

If we are ever going to have another black president— or our first female, Hispanic or Asian president—we are going to have to strategize and organize to bring it about, deliberately.

I think King himself on high watching down on us, would agree.

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Eugene Kane
Eugene Kane

Eugene Kane is a national award winning journalist and former longtime columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He has received awards for his journalism from the National Headliner Awards, the National Association of Black Journalists, The Society of Professional Journalists and is a member of the Milwaukee Press Club Media Hall of Fame.