When Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, I was 19 years old and fancifully considered myself to be far to the left of him. Notwithstanding that, he felt to me like one of my moral elders and tutors (as he still does). When I was first asked to sign a petition to make his birthday a national holiday, on a Manhattan side street in 1970, I was 21 and signed with pride. When, in 1983, President Ronald Reagan finally signed also, authorizing the bill for the King holiday, I was humbled to think of how far along I was in my 30s and how comparatively little I had to show for it. And last weekend, reading a beautiful reminiscence by King biographer Taylor Branch, I was arrested by the realization that King has now been dead for longer than he was alive, and that it's been 40 years.
On the very same weekend, as it happened, I was reading Nicholson Baker's much-discussed book Human Smoke, and I came across the following passage:
A union organizer and socialist, Philip Randolph, was in President Roosevelt's office to talk about jobs for Negroes in defense plants. It was June 18, 1941. Randolph had announced a huge march on Washington. "Our people are being turned away at factory gates because they are colored," he said to the president. "They can't live with this thing. Now, what are you going to do about it?"
FDR offered to intercede with the heads of the defense industries, but only if the march on Washington was called off: Randolph wanted an executive order prohibiting racism in hiring. In the end, the march was called off, but only in return for a strongly written executive order.
Whenever I leave my current hometown by train, I always make a little salute to the obscure and disfigured statue of Randolph that is erected in Washington's Union Station. It was 22 years before he had to try the same tactic on another vacillating Democratic incumbent. And this time, President John F. Kennedy didn't get the point until the marchers, organized by the United Automobile Workers as well as the civil rights leadership, actually flooded the city.
On the same weekend as I was reading Nicholson Baker, I also absorbed a news item about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the recently retired pastor of Barack Obama's church in Chicago. Here is the form that the reverend's "retirement" will take: a $1.6 million home, purchased in the name of his church and consisting of more than 10,000 square feet, in a gated community in Tinley Park, a prosperous white section of the city. There used to be a secularist line about fat shepherds and thin sheep, but the joke here is not just at the expense of a man who never pretended to be much more than a hustler. The joke is on those of the "flock" who tithed themselves to achieve this level of comfort for a man who must be pinching himself when he wakes up every day.
But, then, so must the Rev. Al Sharpton, routinely described by the New York Times as "the civil rights activist," be pinching himself each morning. By evening, after all, several limos will have arrived to transport him to several studios where he will be flattered and taken seriously. And this enviable existence is watched with avaricious jealousy by more junior practitioners, like the raving Rev. James Meeks of Chicago's Salem Baptist Church, who may not yet be quite ready for prime time, and by the members of Louis Farrakhan's racist and sectarian crew, who affect to think that Christianity is a slave religion and that white people are the products of a laboratory experiment gone wrong.
The thing that this gaggle of cranks and parasites has in common is the extreme deference with which it is treated by the junior senator from Illinois. In April 2004, Barack Obama told a reporter from the ChicagoSun-Times that he had three spiritual mentors or counselors: Jeremiah Wright, James Meeks, and Father Michael Pfleger—for a change of pace, a white Catholic preacher who has a close personal feeling for the man he calls (as does Obama) Minister Farrakhan. This crossover stuff is not as "inclusive" as it might be made to seem: Meeks' main political connections in the white community are with the hysterically anti-homosexual wing of the Christian right. If Obama were to be read a list of the positions that his clerical supporters take on everything from Judaism to sodomy, he would be in the smooth and silky business of "distancing" from now until November. And that is why he hopes that his Philadelphia speech, which dissociated him from everything and nothing, will be enough. He seems, indeed, to have a real gift for remaining adequately uninformed about the real beliefs of his "mentors."
This is a lot sadder, and a lot more serious, than has been admitted. Four decades after the murder in Memphis of a friend of the working man—a hero who was always being denounced by the FBI for his choice of secular and socialist friends and colleagues—the national civil rights pulpit is largely occupied by second-rate shakedown artists who hope to franchise "race talk" into a fat living for themselves. Far from preaching truth and brotherhood, they trade in cheap slander and paranoia and in venomous dislike of other minorities. Elijah Muhammad and the Black Muslims used to relish their meetings with Klansmen and Nazis to discuss the beauties of separatism. These riffraff, too, hang out with Farrakhan and make opportunist coalitions with the James Dobsons and Gary Bauers of the white right. This is the lovely clientele of the faith-based initiative. Who now cares to commemorate Philip Randolph or Bayard Rustin or the other giants of struggle and solidarity in whose debt we live? So amnesiac have we become, indeed, that we fall into paroxysms of adulation for a ward-heeling Chicago politician who does not complete, let alone "transcend," the work of Dr. King; who hasn't even caught up to where we were four decades ago; and who, by his chosen associations, negates and profanes the legacy that was left to all of us.