Saturday, July 26, 2008

Mini-Debate: Is MLK/Obama Symbolism Strained?

Recently, the NYTimes has begun posting mini-video discussions to their website. Currently, they feature a mini-debate between John McWhorter and Glen Lourey over the comparisons being tossed around regularly between Barack Obama's campaign and Martin Luther King's historic role in the African American freedom movement. It runs about 4 minutes. Check it out:

What do you think?


  1. I like some of what Loury has written on this election cycle, but I'm not sure what he wants in this case.

    He seems bugged that nobody asked him or there was no formal decision-making process that gave Obama the mantle as heir to the legacy of King and others.

    There is no real way for that to happen and Loury knows this

    I thought of both Kerry and McCain and their claims to the mantle as representing Viet Nam vets. In both cases they have a good case to make. In both cases there will be no final resolution because the meaning of the mantle remains in conflict.

    I think that the same is true of Obama and the civil rights movements. He has a claim, a good case to make. Bot the legacy is also contested and he is not the only claimant.

    McWhorter says time and a historical perspective are needed to judge. I think time will cement the opinions of some, but I don't think the contested legacies of the movements will ever be entirely settled.

  2. Well put, TJ. Thanks for commenting.

    There is also a Movement versus formal politics dynamic to this debate. Some Movement folks no doubt bristle at the idea of an institutional politician embodying the "legacy" of the Movement. Others, of course, see the fact that we even have an African American guy as the candidate for a major party, particularly the Democratic Party with its history as the party of segregation in the South, as an indication of some of the progress our society has made over the last 40 years on race. And, for sure, some worry that the success of Obama might obscure the very real strides our society still needs to take to overcome the historic and contemporary dynamics of racial injustice.

    So, I agree that this is a contested legacy and won't be settled any time soon.

  3. I'm not sure about the movement vs. politics thing. I don't recall people having that problem with the first generation of big city African American mayors. or even other officials whose elections were clearly an extension of the movements.

    I think "obscure the very real strides our society still needs to take to overcome the historic and contemporary dynamics of racial injustice" understates the worries of some. Only time will tell if these worries are legit, but Obama's success has sent to the message to some that there are no contemporary injustices that need overcoming or that only "post-racial" thinking is needed and an awareness of the powerful role race continues to play in the recreation of inequality is counter-productive.

  4. There are DEFINITELY Movement folks, grassroots activist folks, who are leary of putting too much stock in an institutional politician as an agent of serious "change." For me, I think we have to work on all fronts... formal and informal politics, etc.

    And, of course there are those, particularly those on the Right, like Ward Connerely or Sean Hannity, who are pushing the idea that Obama's success proves our society has overcome whatever vestiges of racial injustice that there were. This is clearly a danger lurking in Obama's success. One of the measures of his presidency, should he win, will be the degree to which he is willing to use his power to apeak about those issues and address the very real inequalities in our society, not just on race, but also in terms of class, gender, sexuality, etc.

  5. One more thought: I think where some people have it wrong is when they put too much stock in Obama's ability to do it all, viewing him as some sort of political panacea. He ain't. He is one piece in a HUGE puzzle. Important, of course, but not the whole picture.

    If we view him like that, we will not make the strides we need to on the issues we care most about. So, yes, we work with Obama from a progressive standpoint, pushing him and proddding him to be true to our values and interests, but we also continue our grassroots fights ("movement building"), as well as our efforts to elect other more progressive pols at the local, state and federal level.

    I know you know this, TJ, but thought it should be out there...