Monday, January 21, 2008

Democrats' Need an MLK "Day On"

This year's observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day seems to be, sadly, less about Dr. King and the ongoing lessons of the civil rights movement and more about politicking and poll numbers. Don't get me wrong, the presidential candidates should properly honor Dr. King's legacy, and hopefully also pledge to not only preserve it but actively work to win back what's been so merrily and summarily sabotaged by the Bush administration. Pretty speeches will be made and "We Shall Overcome" shall be sung -- and these observances can be important food for the soul. I guess it's just that I wish there wasn't political hay to be made from this reflective holiday, and that change-making, inspiring action rather than more rhetoric would make the headlines. Given the recently turbulent racial waters and emerging gender and racial dimensions in the Democratic primary, I hope this day is used to generate what Dr. King so often called for -- unity and healing.

But I'm not holding my breath -- perhaps I have lived inside the beltway too long. My suspicions were reinforced by today's Washington Post coverage, which leads off its political section noting that "Speaking in [the] pulpit of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Atlanta church, Sen. Barack Obama links King's vision of an America free of segregation and racism to the central tenet of his own presidential campaign, a call to end partisan rancor." Meanwhile, according to the same Post article, Clinton made an appearance at the Sunday services of the famous Abyssinian Baptist Church -- where trailblazing black congressman Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. once preached -- to receive the endorsement of its pastor. Clinton described for the congregation how she traveled with a youth group to hear Dr. King speak, and the "transforming experience" it had been in her life. That the church is in Harlem, in the congressional district of House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel -- who is a longtime leader in the Congressional Black Caucus and an outspoken Clinton supporter -- is no coincidence.

Indeed, despite Obama's unmistakable charisma and promise, one of his biggest hurdles has been winning over the civil rights leaders from Dr. King's generation. A fair amount of these notables -- like civil rights pioneer and Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) -- have endorsed Clinton. The question is whether this steadfastness is out of loyalty to the Clinton machine or a real sense that Obama is not quite ready for prime time. Civil rights leader and former ambassador Andrew Young has said Obama will be ready to be president -- in 2016. Meanwhile, Jesse Jackson is firmly in the Obama camp. One wonders how much of an impact the split in the old guard African American leadership will have on the black vote.

Not much, if the way the winds are blowing in South Carolina are any indication. Interestingly enough, African Americans as a whole -- who had been supporting Clinton over Obama in the early going -- have switched in droves to Obama since he established his bona fides in Iowa. And no wonder. If the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas can win in the frozen plains of Iowa -- which are as white as its population -- there's a new sense that Obama really could win over Joe Voter in Middle America. His challenge, however, remains in winning over Josephine Voter. Clinton's got the clear edge there, and the gender gap is not only alive and well it's keeping the Democratic Party afloat.

But if Democratic primary goers are largely going to vote their DNA, where does that leave the party come November? The reality is, we are in the midst of an historic election, with barriers falling faster than Giuliani's poll numbers -- this is good news for Democrats, and for the country as a whole. Today of all days, we should celebrate this progress. It represents a shift in the national political landscape that hopefully will change forever the image of American leadership. It is important enough that we get beyond the horse race and stop reporting about this momentous election as if it were an auction. To take back the White House, no matter who the eventual nominee is, Democrats will need a large dose of Dr. King's unity and healing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

No sign of Dr. King's unity and healing at the Democratic debate (or should we call it a food fight?) in SC last night. Thank goodness there was a grown up present to at least get some of the discussion back on track. I hope the voters of SC respond and reward John Edwards for his serious discussion of the real issues facing all of us this year with their votes later in the week

Sadly, Clinton and Obama only looked presidential last night if you use G. W. Bush as your standard bearer.