Martin Luther King day in Miami

January 19, 2011

Americans honor the birthdays of three of its citizens with holidays named after them. George Washington and Christopher Columbus were the first two recipients, Martin Luther King the third.

It’s a day off work for government employees, and for workers in some other sectors such as banks. In America the date is fixed on a Monday closest to the actual birthday. Martin Luther King day falls on the third Monday of January. The edict was eventually enacted by all 50 States, although there were some who reluctantly gave up celebrating a more local hero on the day.

Miami celebrated under grey clouds this monday [January 15th 2011]. A visitor to the city might not have appreciated its significance. Traffic downtown was light. But the near deserted finance sector could have signified any non-working day.

King, and the “I have a dream” speech

I remember Martin Luther King, from a time when I was working as a research assistant at a New York medical college. That was in the 1960s. The civil rights movement seemed to an outsider like me to be lead by more militant characters. It was typified by the cool supporters of the Black Power movement held out leaflets from the street corners of Manhattan. Sometimes I would take a pamphlet. The activists seemed more concerned with getting their message across to “brothers rather than others” who mostly hurried by, occupying a different space on the sidewalks.

The controversial figure of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was also rarely out of the headlines. Powell was a firely politician and pastor who represented Harlem, in the United States House of Representatives for a staggering period from 1945 until his removal in disgrace in 1971. Although I did not know it at the time, Powell strongly opposed Martin Luther King’s non-violence policies.

But it was King’s voice which won through, both in a literal and metaphoric sense. His speech has become one of the most praised of all time for the power of its delivery and its impact. It is said to have encouraged President Kennedy to put more weight behind the Civil rights campaign (JFK was rather more ambivalent about his direct involvement than was his brother Bobby.)

Elsewhere

King Day events were reported rather modestly, and outside the news headlines. In Atlanta, the symbolic focus was at MLK’s Ebenezer Baptist church close by his birth place. The messages from political leaders and members of his family picked up on the continued need for non-violence and reconciliation. The recent slayings at Tucson were picked up as a theme.

This echoed a recent speech by President Obama which had also called for greater efforts toward reconciliation. The tragedy had triggered mourning and a political storm of accusations that rhetoric had inflamed the popular mood and precipitated acts of violence.


Obama: Change comes to Washington

August 29, 2008

Barack Obama adds a creative twist to his message of change. In his acceptance speech for the Presidential nomination he insists that America will change. But change will not come from Washington, he insists, it will come to Washington

It was a speech deliberately echoing the “I have a dream” speech of Martin Luther King. King’s dream was of the community of races within America.

Obama also echoed John F. Kennedy, who insisted that Americans ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country.

But these echoes from the past reinforced Obama’s message for the future. In a creative leap, he turned the more simplistic change message on its head. Yes, America would change. But not because a new leader and administration in Washington would change America, but because America would change Washington. ‘Change comes to Washington’ he insisted.

This was the Obama combining policy with personality. The Obama avoiding what he has demonstrated in the past, avoiding burning bright intensifying the charisma of the leader. If anything, he seemed to be deliberately holding back for much of the speech lest the message was lost in the dazzle of full-wattage Obama.

There was plenty of yes and about the speech. Senator McCain? We are all patriots. That should not be an issue. [I remembered briefly the call by David Cameron, the newly appointed leader of the Conservatives to avoid Punch and Judy politics. Would the fine words last longer on this campaign than they did in the UK?].

But the dream was an old dream fulfilled rather than one freshly imagined

It is that promise that has always set this country apart – that through hard work and sacrifice, each of us can pursue our individual dreams but still come together as one American family, to ensure that the next generation can pursue their dreams as well.

The context of change was spelled out

Unlike John McCain, I will stop giving tax breaks to corporations that ship our jobs overseas, and I will start giving them to companies that create good jobs right here in America.
I will eliminate capital gains taxes for the small businesses and the start-ups that will create the high-wage, high-tech jobs of tomorrow.
I will cut taxes – cut taxes – for 95% of all working families. Because in an economy like this, the last thing we should do is raise taxes on the middle-class.

And for the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, I will set a clear goal as President: in ten years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East.

[On Foreign Policy] As Commander-in-Chief, I will never hesitate to defend this nation, but I will only send our troops into harm’s way with a clear mission and a sacred commitment to give them the equipment they need in battle and the care and benefits they deserve when they come home. I will end this war in Iraq responsibly, and finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taleban in Afghanistan. But I will also renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons

Did it work?

I don’t know. As an outsider, recently I have struggled to understand the impact of the politics of Scotland’s governing party as it seeks independence from England. What chance do I have of assessing the impact of Obama’s performance on his prospects of election as President?

One thing is clear. Barack Obama is an exceptionally creative leader. He is offering a clear choice for change, by invitation rather than exhortation. His message is that change comes from the people: encouraged but not dictated by its leaders. It is still a message requiring the audacity of hope for its full-hearted acceptance. And it is an invitation that captures the principle that we create the leaders we deserve.

Postscript

This post deliberately avoided replicating views of other observers. As I listened in cosy darkness, I did not pick up the context and visual impact of the speech. As Google listed around 1000 news reports on Obama this morning, there are plenty of reports available to chose from.