*The news photo was literally was worth a thousand words. There was President Obama, Daisy Bates, and a group of White House staffers gazing at the world famous Norman Rockwell portrait prominently positioned on a West Wing wall of a black girl being escorted by federal marshals through a howling mob of enraged whites to class. The class was of course at Little Rock’s previously segregated Central High School in 1957. Bates was one of the prime movers behind the school desegregation movement in Little Rock.
Though Obama gave no reason why he chose to hang the portrait in a conspicuous spot on a West Wing wall, it was no accident that he did. The portrait was hung there just days before he was scheduled to give his much touted and long awaited speech at the unveiling ceremony of the Martin Luther King Jr. Monument on the National Mall. Hanging the Rockwell painting was more than symbolism.
Though the King Memorial unveiling and Obama’s speech was postponed due to a Hurricane threat, the portrait was a strong signal that race would have been very much on the table in the speech he would have given at the King monument unveiling. And well it should. Obama has repeatedly been ripped in recent weeks by the Congressional Black caucus and other blacks for not doing or even saying enough about the colossal crisis of black joblessness and poverty. Polls have shown that the criticism has touched a nerve with many blacks. His performance rating on the jobs issue has plunged among them. The tiniest chink in Obama’s black support is cause for deep worry at the White House. He’ll need black voters to turn the 2012 presidential re-election campaign into the same, fiery holy crusade that they did in 2008. This means a turnout in numbers, big numbers, in the key battleground states.
For much of his first term, Obama has walked a perilous racial tight rope. On the one hand he’s been hyper cautious not to give any ammunition to bigots to paint him as a race conscious or even race baiting African-American be speaking out on racial matters. On the other hand he’s done what he can quietly to boost black appointments to judgeships, federal posts, and get the best deal he can from a GOP sworn to make him a one-term president, on education, jobs, and health care spending and preserve Social Security and Medicare, and Medicaid.
The withering assaults on Obama as disappointing the King legacy misses the mark. The 1963 March on Washington that brought King world-wide attention and stamped him as a transformative leader for the ages brought thousands of persons together across gender, class and color lines in a vocal protest against intolerance and violence. This was the hope and promise of Obama’s election. It showed that millions of whites could strap racial blinders around their eyes and punch the ticket for an African-American for the world’s most powerful political post. King would undoubtedly have glowed with approval at that.
The same ugly hate that King faced. Obama has faced. The racially tinged and in some cases blatant racial vilification and ridicule of Obama, and even issuing veiled physical threats against him by the pack of extreme Tea Party leaders, right wing talk show gabbers, and bloggers and websites have been relentless. Polls showed that a significant percentage of whites vehemently oppose Obama’s policies on health care, and the economy. The slur is continually made that Obama is a closet Marxist and racial agitator. These were the exact same slurs that were repeatedly tossed at Dr. King.
The centerpiece of King’s March on Washington speech and his decade of activism for racial justice and tolerance was that America could both be pushed rudely, or gently evolve, into a color blind society. He didn’t mean the phony, deliberate, and self-serving distortion of his words by many conservatives to hammer affirmative action, special programs, and initiatives and increased spending on jobs, education, and health programs for African-Americans and minorities. King never lost sight of the fact that the legacy of segregation, bigotry and discrimination trapped thousands of poor blacks and that offered no easy resolution. Even as the King Monument is unveiled the black poor are still just as tightly trapped in the grip of poverty and discrimination that King warned about.
Obama decries any thought that the civil rights movement is outdated and that he supplants the ongoing work of civil rights leaders. He made a point to tell Bates that without “you guys I might not be here.” This is a fitting tribute to the civil rights movement that challenged the nation to make King’s dream of justice and equality a reality. Obama can seize King’s racial high ground by making that point forcefully in his speech and continuing to back it up with action. Obama firmly understands that there’s still much more to overcome.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on KTYM Radio Los Angeles streamed on ktym.com podcast on blogtalkradio.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com
Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson
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