Working For a Better America: Thoughts on Obama’s Second Inauguration, Dr. Cornel West, and the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Although I wrote this piece nearly five years ago, the theme and message of Dr. West’s speech are as true today as they were in 2013…

This afternoon, on the day we annually celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, Barack Obama was recognized in the 57th presidential inauguration celebration. As America’s 44th president, the first claiming African-American heritage, he gave a beautiful speech of togetherness, of the American dream, and of equality. Mr. Obama’s words and aspirations rang true to Dr. King’s legacy, offering hope for change in education, in the recession, and in political cooperation. His words were reminiscent of those Dr. Cornel West told to an eager audience last night that he wished for President Obama to act upon in the next four years.

At 8:00pm on Sunday, January 20, 2013, during Kennesaw State University’s Annual Observance of the Birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Dr. Bobbie Bailey and Family Performance Center, Dr. West gave the keynote speech in a program titled “Globalizing the Black Legacy.” Following a beautiful and uplifting musical selection by the KSU Gospel Choir, led by Dr. Opal Moses, the stage was yielded to the esteemed Dr. West, who exalted music as an integral component to the Civil Rights Movement. He claimed there would have been “no Martin Luther King without Mihalia Jackson” and promised of his speech that “The last thing I want to do is deodorize [MLK]. It’s gonna get funky up in here.” Dr. West stayed true to his word, offering a view of Dr. King that many of us forget.

“MLK was a radical and a real person,” said Lauren Wiginton, who was in attendance at the event. She said Dr. West’s speech “made me think about the truly controversial nature of [Dr. King’s] message, and how even today it would be considered controversial when you look at the heart of it.” Dr. West spoke of how MLK’s movement highlighted “unarmed truth and unconditional love,” regardless of whether those ideals fit snugly with any political agenda. His message called for the world to think about what it means to be human, reminding us that you reap what you sow. In his eloquent speech, Dr. West pointed to three main components of Dr. King’s message, relating them to injustices in America’s political agenda today:

  1. Jim Crow Laws:: Prison Industrial Complex – Dr. West regarded the “Jim Jane Crow Laws” as American terrorism, a way of keeping blacks in de facto slavery even while de jure slavery was openly criticized; he said that today we have a new Jim Crow in the form of soft drug crimes being treated more harshly than hard economic crimes and in African-Americans receiving drastically more and greater criminal sentences than their white counterparts (see Book Review – The New Jim Crow);
  2. Carpet Bombing in Vietnam:: Drone Attacks – Dr. West pointed out that more than 300 innocent Pakistanis have been killed in the unmanned drone attacks, not unlike the numerous innocent casualties that stained the American war effort during Vietnam; he cited our need to respect the citizens of all countries and to keep from providing foreign aggressors with fuel to inflict further terrorist attacks against the U.S.; and
  3. Poverty:: Poverty and a Broken Social Welfare System – where Dr. King spoke out against worldwide abject poverty, we can see its persistence today; in the richest country of the world, we Americans have denied so many basic rights to the underclass and, worse, created a culture of welfare-dependent individuals with near impossible opportunities for escape.

Dr. West called upon our president to reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s challenge. Today, in his inauguration speech, Mr. Obama also spoke of creating an environment of equality, of exiting the theater of war, and of using education to provide every child with a chance to realize the American dream. He insisted that these goals cannot be achieved by one person or one group, but only through the American people working “together.” As Dr. West told his audience last night, “Justice in the face of might sounds naïve… [but] it’s about numbers. That’s called a social movement.”

In reflecting further upon the current state of American culture, Dr. West urged U.S. youth to “lift every voice, not every echo.” While social movements rely on numbers, they cannot be carried by a sea of uninspired fans. Social movements need strong followers to put forth their message, and Dr. West called upon each youth to look first to himself and his own life before rallying behind a purpose. He claimed that “weapons of cultural distraction” and lack of access to education have robbed many young Americans of the opportunity to build an identity and a voice. He reminded his audience that “eventually you’re going to have to deal with the choices you’ve made” and that “you need to learn how to die in order to know how to live.”

“The thing I took away” from Dr. West’s speech, said Ms. Wiginton, “was how relevant the idea of looking out for ALL your brothers and sisters is, no matter their nationality or the details of their struggle, especially at this juncture in our nation’s history.” Without an identity to a movement, it lacks inspiration. Without the strong character of its individuals, it lacks drive. And without an overreaching respect for all people in all walks of life and the effects of the injustice in each of their lives, it lacks morality. As music was a key component to the Civil Rights Movement, so too has morality – and often spirituality – been an integral part of social movements worldwide, according to Dr. West. He urged each individual to remember this while acting in his community and in the world.

The experience of hearing Dr. Cornel West speak at a celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday was uplifting and inspirational. In remembering Dr. King, we are reminded of how much one person can do for a movement, be he the charismatic leader or the voice that keeps the message rolling. Dr. West said of MLK that he was “not an isolated individual” but instead “part of a decent and dignified people” and “part of a vital and vibrant tradition” of speaking out against social injustice.

“We miss you so,” said Dr. West. “We need you so, especially in these confusing times.” Hopefully Mr. Obama will reflect on the purpose behind the radical Martin Luther King, Jr. and will heed his own words of hope and equality in his second term as

This afternoon, on the day we annually celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, Barack Obama was recognized in the 57th presidential inauguration celebration. As America’s 44th president, the first claiming African-American heritage, he gave a beautiful speech of togetherness, of the American dream, and of equality. Mr. Obama’s words and aspirations rang true to Dr. King’s legacy, offering hope for change in education, in the recession, and in political cooperation. His words were reminiscent of those Dr. Cornel West told to an eager audience last night that he wished for President Obama to act upon in the next four years.

At 8:00pm on Sunday, January 20, 2013, during Kennesaw State University’s Annual Observance of the Birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Dr. Bobbie Bailey and Family Performance Center, Dr. West gave the keynote speech in a program titled “Globalizing the Black Legacy.” Following a beautiful and uplifting musical selection by the KSU Gospel Choir, led by Dr. Opal Moses, the stage was yielded to the esteemed Dr. West, who exalted music as an integral component to the Civil Rights Movement. He claimed there would have been “no Martin Luther King without Mihalia Jackson” and promised of his speech that “The last thing I want to do is deodorize [MLK]. It’s gonna get funky up in here.” Dr. West stayed true to his word, offering a view of Dr. King that many of us forget.

“MLK was a radical and a real person,” said Lauren Wiginton, who was in attendance at the event. She said Dr. West’s speech “made me think about the truly controversial nature of [Dr. King’s] message, and how even today it would be considered controversial when you look at the heart of it.” Dr. West spoke of how MLK’s movement highlighted “unarmed truth and unconditional love,” regardless of whether those ideals fit snugly with any political agenda. His message called for the world to think about what it means to be human, reminding us that you reap what you sow. In his eloquent speech, Dr. West pointed to three main components of Dr. King’s message, relating them to injustices in America’s political agenda today:

  1. Jim Crow Laws:: Prison Industrial Complex – Dr. West regarded the “Jim Jane Crow Laws” as American terrorism, a way of keeping blacks in de facto slavery even while de jure slavery was openly criticized; he said that today we have a new Jim Crow in the form of soft drug crimes being treated more harshly than hard economic crimes and in African-Americans receiving drastically more and greater criminal sentences than their white counterparts (see Book Review – The New Jim Crow);
  2. Carpet Bombing in Vietnam:: Drone Attacks – Dr. West pointed out that more than 300 innocent Pakistanis have been killed in the unmanned drone attacks, not unlike the numerous innocent casualties that stained the American war effort during Vietnam; he cited our need to respect the citizens of all countries and to keep from providing foreign aggressors with fuel to inflict further terrorist attacks against the U.S.; and
  3. Poverty:: Poverty and a Broken Social Welfare System – where Dr. King spoke out against worldwide abject poverty, we can see its persistence today; in the richest country of the world, we Americans have denied so many basic rights to the underclass and, worse, created a culture of welfare-dependent individuals with near impossible opportunities for escape.

Dr. West called upon our president to reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s challenge. Today, in his inauguration speech, Mr. Obama also spoke of creating an environment of equality, of exiting the theater of war, and of using education to provide every child with a chance to realize the American dream. He insisted that these goals cannot be achieved by one person or one group, but only through the American people working “together.” As Dr. West told his audience last night, “Justice in the face of might sounds naïve… [but] it’s about numbers. That’s called a social movement.”

In reflecting further upon the current state of American culture, Dr. West urged U.S. youth to “lift every voice, not every echo.” While social movements rely on numbers, they cannot be carried by a sea of uninspired fans. Social movements need strong followers to put forth their message, and Dr. West called upon each youth to look first to himself and his own life before rallying behind a purpose. He claimed that “weapons of cultural distraction” and lack of access to education have robbed many young Americans of the opportunity to build an identity and a voice. He reminded his audience that “eventually you’re going to have to deal with the choices you’ve made” and that “you need to learn how to die in order to know how to live.”

“The thing I took away” from Dr. West’s speech, said Ms. Wiginton, “was how relevant the idea of looking out for ALL your brothers and sisters is, no matter their nationality or the details of their struggle, especially at this juncture in our nation’s history.” Without an identity to a movement, it lacks inspiration. Without the strong character of its individuals, it lacks drive. And without an overreaching respect for all people in all walks of life and the effects of the injustice in each of their lives, it lacks morality. As music was a key component to the Civil Rights Movement, so too has morality – and often spirituality – been an integral part of social movements worldwide, according to Dr. West. He urged each individual to remember this while acting in his community and in the world.

The experience of hearing Dr. Cornel West speak at a celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday was uplifting and inspirational. In remembering Dr. King, we are reminded of how much one person can do for a movement, be he the charismatic leader or the voice that keeps the message rolling. Dr. West said of MLK that he was “not an isolated individual” but instead “part of a decent and dignified people” and “part of a vital and vibrant tradition” of speaking out against social injustice.

“We miss you so,” said Dr. West. “We need you so, especially in these confusing times.” Hopefully Mr. Obama will reflect on the purpose behind the radical Martin Luther King, Jr. and will heed his own words of hope and equality in his second term as president of the United States of America.

This post was originally written and published on January 21, 2013, for a personal blog that is no longer active.

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