|At the center of the Civil Rights Movement was the issue of voting rights. Barriers such as impossible literacy test and intentionally misleading information hindered the ability of African Americans to cast their vote. In the eyes of Dr. King, the black vote being excluded from the ballot was not only an injustice for African Americans, but for the entirety of the American population. True representation in the American political system would never be fully realized until the black vote was secured and protected. Dr. King reasoned that this representation would be “color-blind” in that the black vote being made legitimate would not only be to the benefit of African Americans, but to the benefit of white Americans as well (King1965, 16). This is due to the fact that many white Americans were actually more similar in economic standing and political views to African Americans than they realized. However, due to the exclusion of the black vote, officials that would be an accurate representation of said demographic were often not elected to office. Dr. King noted that this lack of representation was even visible at the Federal level and was highly critical of the U.S. Federal Government’s handling of the issue of voting rights for Africans Americans. While King felt that the Judicial Branch had taken a proactive approach in the effort of securing voting rights, he felt that the Executive and Legislative Branches had been greatly uninspired in their efforts. King was quoted as saying, “In the midst of the tragic breakdown of law and order, the Executive branch of the government is too silent and apathetic. In the midst of the need for civil rights the Legislative branch is too stagnant and hypocritical.” (King 1957, 198). This non-action on the part of the Executive and Legislative branches could likely be attributed to the fact that it’s elected members already had well-established constituencies within the white demographic. This being the case, not only would advocating for African American voting rights not be a fruitful endeavor for them, but it could be potentially detrimental to their already established white constituency that may have been made up of voters who held strong prejudices against African Americans.
As Dr. King saw it, all that African Americans truly needed in order to enact the change in their community was the ability to elect officials that they felt had their best interest in mind. “Give us the ballot and we will transform we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into calculated good deeds of orderly citizens,” (King 1957, 198). Essentially, the message was that the change that the black community wished to see would organically occur if they were simply able to participate in the political process. Within this change, however, Dr. King gave the black community several warnings concerning what would need to occur once voting rights were secured for African Americans. First, King made the implication that African American participation in politics is most effective when there is a common end goal in mind. He used the example of Stokely Carmichael and Roy Wilkins, two African American leaders, coming to an agreement that voting would be the greatest tool for improving the condition of African Americans, despite the fact there overall political ideologies differed. (King 1967, 7) This is to say that while African American voters do not have to be monolithic in their political beliefs, they should be able to come to a mutual understanding concerning what is best for African Americans. Dr. King also warned African Americans that wished to hold a political office that once they gain political influence, they must be fair in how they conduct their politics. King stated, “... we must be sure that we accept them in the right spirit. We must not seek to use our emerging freedom and our growing power to do the same thing to the white minority that has been done to us for so many centuries. We must not become victimized with a philosophy of ‘black supremacy’."(King 1957, 199). While Dr. King did believe it was the responsibility of black politicians to bring necessary changes to the black community, he was also a steadfast advocate for equal rights, even for those who had been oppressive towards African Americans. Not only would African American politicians attempting to enact racist policies against whites go against his philosophy, but it would perpetuate the long-standing system of division and oppression that had long plagued the United States. Perhaps most important in Dr. King’s vision of a color-blind political landscape was both whites and blacks having patience with the changing political landscape, especially African Americans. For many whites, their prejudices towards African Americans were flawed, but deep-rooted beliefs and Dr. King knew that it would take time for a shift in these beliefs to occur. Much like the non-violent protest, Dr. King believed that political understanding could come by way of African Americans being firm in standing by what they know is morally just while simultaneously being civilized in how they go about enumerating their interest. The passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 would be seen by Dr. King as the first legitimate step toward his vision of a renewed political landscape. With the legitimacy and protection of the black vote secured by legislation, the change that African Americans so desperately wished for could finally begin to take place and presumably shape the United States into its best self.
In 2008, Forty-years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the citizens of United States of America would elect an African American to the position of President for the first time in it’s history. The election of President Barack Obama would come following the less than satisfactory George W. Bush Presidency in which issues including the careless handling of the War in Iraq and attempts to cut numerous social programs plagued the administration. With this in mind, Barack Obama ran on the platform of “Change We Can Believe In”. This “change” not only alluded to a change that would be made in how the administration would do politics, but a symbolic change as well. The election of an African American President illustrated that for the majority of American voters, when deciding who would be the most effective leader of the nation, practicality of rhetoric and policy goals was more important than something as arbitrary as race. On the surface this would seem to be the affirmation of Dr. King’s vision of a “color-blind” United States at the highest level with African American having significant enough influence to finally set forth a comprehensive agenda that addresses the disparities that continuously plague the black community, while still keeping in mind what is best for the United States as a whole. While this may have a harmonious, optimistic outlook to have; the inner workings of Politics would not allow for such actions to transpire fluently.
Early on in Barack Obama’s Presidency, a distinguished African American Professor named Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was wrongfully arrested by the Cambridge, Massachusetts policemen .(Dyson 2016, 1) In response to the event, Barack Obama was quoted as saying the police acted “stupidly”.(Dyson 2016, 1) In response to these comments, there was significant backlash from law enforcement and media which led ultimately led to President Obama having to apologize to the policeman that arrested Professor Gates. In many ways this event set the stage for how President Obama would address the issue of race for the remainder of his Presidency. Following this event, President Obama made it abundantly clear that he did not want to be seen as the “Black” President. This not only meant that he did not want to only be notable for the color of skin, but it also spoke to the fact that he did not want African Americans to expect that he would go out of his way to exclusively address issues faced by the black community. President Obama even went so far as to say “I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of the United States of America,” during an interview Black Enterprise magazine when addressing the criticism, he was receiving from African Americans for not having done enough for the African American community (Dyson 2016, 2). In 2012, this attitude toward of reluctance to address race culminated in President Obama being notably stagnant regarding the issue of some states creating voter registration policies that made it difficult for African Americans and other minorities to vote (Senior 2015,1). While many felt that President Obama should have pushed for some form of legislation in order prohibit these policies, President Obama failed to take any effective action regarding the policies (Senior 2015,1). This was a clear cut display of what writer Jennifer Senior deemed as the “The Paradox of the First Black President” (1). While President Obama had been placed in office by the vote of minorities, once in power, little practical action was taken as it pertained to helping said minorities, especially African Americans. Essentially, in trying so desperately, to escape the label as the black candidate; he had effectively alienated many of the people who put him in office.
As the case often is with African American leaders, comparisons take place between Dr. King and Barack Obama with the question arising of what would Dr. King would think of Barack Obama’s politics. Seeing as that Dr. King was rational in his way of thinking, it is reasonable to believe that he would be understanding of Barack Obama’s reluctance to solely tackle issues facing the black community as this would likely yield little success and be a practice in “black supremacy”. However, it still stands to reason that Dr. King would take issue with President Obama’s extreme aversion to addressing and handling issues facing African Americans. Some may argue that President Obama has come full circle seeing as that as of late he has begun to speak out against police brutality and gun violence against African Americans. However, just as Dr. King took issue with the Executive branch of his time being lethargic in the handling of African American Civil Rights, the same could be said for President Obama only openly addressing disparities in the African American community in passing as his presidency draws to a close. To say that Dr. King would be disappointed in the job that Barack Obama did as President would be an unfair generalization of how Dr. King viewed political strategy and would also neglect the fact that Dr. King’s political values may very well have evolved over time had he lived. What can be said based on what is known about Dr. King’s political values is that he would have not only been proud of Barack Obama for his election as the first African American President, but he would have also been encouraged by the African American voter population for cohesively electing him to office. None the less, King would have most certainly had his fair share of criticism for President Barack Obama.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Give Us the Ballot." Washington, D.C. 17 May 1957.The Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection at the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center, Inc. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Address at the 75th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association." Washington, D.C. 1 Sept. 1967.The Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection at the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center, Inc. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. "One Vote for Every Man: Civil Rights Act." Selma, Alabama. Mar. 1965. The Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection at the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center, Inc. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.
Senior, Jennifer. (2015 Oct). The Paradox of the First Black President. New York Magazine, Retrieved from http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/10/paradox-of-the-first-black-president.html
Eric Dyson, Michael. (2016 Jan.). Whose President Was He. Politico 3 (2) Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/01/barack-obama-race-relations-213493?o=1Vol. 3, No. 2
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