It is an exciting time. In a few hours the world will get its first United States President that is not a white male. Barack Hussein Obama will be the first African American to serve as President of the United States. It is an exciting time indeed. The authorities estimate that as many as two million people will crowd into the small strip of open space known as the National Mall. Some people are paying outrageous sums of good money and jumping through all kinds of flaming hoops so they can experience the event first hand even though more than likely they’d need a telescope with the optics of the Hubble to make out Mr. Obama’s person as he takes the oath on the steps of the United States Capitol Building.
A lot of people are asking the question what would Dr. King think of all this. Truly, what would arguably the greatest symbol of the civil rights movement think? What would the man who worked tirelessly for the black community think about a black politician achieving what for many is considered the highest political office in the land? Not surprisingly, I see it as a simple question to answer.
When Dr. King instituted passive resistance against the raging institutionalized racism of America, there were a number of individual black Americans who were doing surprisingly well at the time. People like Sidney Portier and Diane Carroll were making careers as Hollywood actors. People like Redd Foxx and Bill Cosby were doing very well as comedians. Berry Gordy and Earl Graves were making a name in the corporate world. And a number of other black professionals were doing well as doctors and lawyers and whatever you may have had at the time.
But Dr. King wasn’t fighting for civil rights for a handful of black people. His struggle was for the black community at large. Mr. King never said that we needed a black President or a black corporate executive or the first black whatever. Mr. King was fighting for the black community in general and not for that one black individual who has been able to overcome and reach their goals.
Thinking of Dr. King I am reminded of the story where he made a personal request to Nichelle Nichols who played Lieutenant Uhura on the then brand new science fiction phenomenon Star Trek. For sometime, Ms. Nichols had felt that she was being mistreated by the show’s producers and wanted to quit the franchise. When she had discovered that while other actors were enjoying their notoriety her fan mail was being withheld it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. She wanted to quit. But Dr. King appealed to her saying that it would inspire future generations of black people to achieve. Dr. Mae Jamison, the first black woman to go to space, admitted that it was Lieutenant Uhura at the futuristic switchboard of the Enterprise that inspired her to become an astronaut.
I’d like to imagine that Dr. King would be proud of Mr. Obama just as much as he would have been proud of any and every person of African decent who achieves and who wants to maintain their affiliation with the black community without selling their soul to do it. The election of Mr. Obama to the presidency is a great achievement for him. But the election of Mr. Obama is not tantamount to the evaporation of inequality. Mr. Obama’s achievement is not the end all or be all of the black community.
A lot of people like to talk in the most simplistic of terms that Mr. Obama’s election is now an indication that racism is over and that the people in the black community no longer have an excuse for the under achievement that permeates the black community relative to other communities. But then people turn around and see Mr. Obama as the rare exception instead of the general rule of black people. He speaks so well. Black people are indeed inferior. It’s just that every now and then you will find that rare black person that can transcend his or her inherent black inferiorities.
Bottom line is that from Dr. King’s perspective, it wasn’t about the individual. It wasn’t about the achievements of a few black people. It was about the black community. We can celebrate the fact that Mr. Obama is the latest member of an extremely small, elite fraternity. We can support him in his endeavors as he tries to bring something that resembles respectable leadership back to the oval office. The black community should be very proud of this moment.
But on the flipside, this is not a time to rest on laurels. The proportion of education and employment opportunities for young black people falls short. The only area when opportunities for black people excel relative to others is when we have an opportunity to fall under the harsh judgment of the public’s eye such as when we are brought before the judicial system or law enforcement. And we still suffer from a mindset that when something negative is perpetrated by one black person, all black people suffer the consequences. The whole fate of future black Presidents rest on Mr. Obama’s broad shoulders. However, the fate of future white Presidents is hardly impacted by the less than stellar performance of George Bush.
And what does an Obama presidency hold for the black community? Would he be a black President in the vein of Thurgood Marshall, the first black appointment to the Supreme Court? Or is Mr. Obama’s relationship with the black community will be better defined in the vein of Clarence Thomas, Mr. Marshall’s less than illustrious successor? Generally speaking will Mr. Obama be someone welcomed by the vast majority of black people who will judge as a good thing for everyone including the black community or will he be judged as an anathema heavily despised by black people?
Like most black people who have a vision and are more socially oriented, I imagine Dr. King would hope for the best for the entire community. But he would not assume anything. He would be proud, but he would stay vigilant. He would say that this was a great achievement for a black man. Obviously, the fact that a black man is becoming President is a sign that we have made significant progress. But the fight for racial equality is far from over. I believe Dr. King would know that we must continue this long and arduous journey resisting all manners of distractions along the way, even the distractions that would lead us to believe we have arrived when it’s really nothing more than the next logical step in a very long process.