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Martin Luther King, Jr. (“MLK”) is not only known for making great speeches about the ill effects of racism. He is also a genius when it comes to writing thought-provoking letters about race and inequality in America. In a letter that he penned while incarcerated in a Birmingham prison, MLK voiced out his hopeless situation, justifying the need for civil disobedience, and direct action. In that letter, written 50 years ago, King made one point very clear. He said that America’s white religious leaders are not trustworthy instruments for change. Forty years later, another African American leader made a speech that addressed the same issue. However, Barrack Obama will never agree with King’s opinion that America’s white religious leaders are not trustworthy instruments for change.
Every statement made must be examined through its proper context. For example, the issues concerning segregation and discrimination are difficult to understand if researchers are unwilling to go back to the starting point when Negro slaves, taken against their will and transported to the U.S mainland, to be traded like property. One has to go back to the time when slaves experienced the euphoria brought about by emancipation at the end of the Civil War. Technically they were free, but at the same time, they were in bondage. After the Civil War, former Negro slaves were considered subhuman, bolstered by the idea that scientists can classify people into different subgroups.
Slavery was abolished eventually, but African Americans were never free to pursue the American Dream. The shackles that prevented them from becoming productive citizens are called racism and segregation. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other leaders of the Civil Rights movement decided to speak out against the idea that African Americans are second-class citizens.
King’s Letter and Obama’s Speech
Martin Luther King, Jr. stirred the hornet’s nest when he went to Birmingham and joined the protest against segregation. In his letter he wrote:
In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again, I have been disappointed (King, Jr. par.34).
MLK made it very clear that he lost faith in the ability of white religious leaders to become instruments of change. He was doubtful that they would lend a helping hand so that African Americans can communicate their struggles effectively. If this assertion is made today, Barack Obama will disagree with MLK’s statement, as seen in the excerpt to the speech entitled A Perfect Union:
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow (Obama, par.48).
Obama was reacting to the incendiary statements made by Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Reverend Wright echoed MLK’s sentiments. President Barack Obama made the counterargument that Reverend Wright made a gross miscalculation. Based on Obama’s statement, one can argue that he will not agree with the position made by MLK. Obama pointed out that no one could deny the changes that were made since the Civil Rights movement started. Without a doubt, there was a time when the struggle for total freedom and the eradication of racism seemed like a hopeless cause. However, progress accelerated, and significant improvements were made.
Obama cited the fact that an African American became the president of the United States. He said that aside from winning the presidency, the most important lesson was that the victory was made possible through a coalition of people from different ethnic groups. In other words, black, white, yellow, and brown people can work together to build a better American nation. Obama cannot agree with MLK’s assertion that no one will come to help African Americans. More importantly, Obama cannot agree with MLK’s conclusion, that it is hopeless to believe that white religious leaders will not lend a helping hand in the black man’s struggle to experience the full measure of emancipation.
Obama could not agree with MLK’s pronouncements if the same statements were made in the 21st century. Obama pointed out the significant changes made after the Civil Rights movement. The most compelling argument is his candidacy and current position as the most powerful man in the United States of America. Obama said that everything was made possible because people from different ethnic backgrounds were willing to work with each other to bring about meaningful change to the country. Therefore, Obama cannot accept MLK’s conclusion based on present circumstances.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” African Studies Center. University of Pennsylvania, 1963. Web.
Obama, Barack. “A More Perfect Union.” Washington Wire. The Wall Street Journal, 2008. Web.