“The great problem confronting us today is that we have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live … and so we are in danger now of ending up with guided missiles in the hands of misguided men.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the commencement address at Lincoln University in 1961, titling his speech “The American Dream.”
Dr. King began that speech the same way President Obama began his farewell address– hearkening back to the Declaration of Independence, marveling about a country of self-governance founded on the principle that our equality is not gifted by the state, but rather exists in our nature. It is our God-given essence. Simply by our birth, we are endowed with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In 1961, Dr. King claimed that the American dream is unfulfilled to the extent that poverty and violence and unequal treatment remain prevalent. He argued that the “interrelated structure of reality” tells us that no one is truly free unless all are free. Not only are the fates of Americans bound up with each other–white and black– but the fates of the entire world are bound up together. The speech predicted a new problem of globalization: “The world in which we live has become a single neighborhood … Through our scientific genius we have made of this world a neighborhood; now through our moral and spiritual development we must make of it a brotherhood.”
Some people blame Obama for his naïveté in dealing with world events. Shoulda been stronger and tougher. I saw him as having a grander, longer-term vision on how the world might, if it ever could, someday live in peace.
From his launch into the national sphere in 2004 to his last week in office, Barack Obama remained the perennial optimist, a believer in a positive human nature. This was somehow both a weakness and a strength. Hope. Unity. Yes We Can.
Dr. King spoke of the need to make the globalized world a spiritual brotherhood. That’s the same spirit Obama carried with him to the presidency. In his final State of the Union, and again in his farewell address, Obama waxed poetic about the struggles and virtues of democracy, and about the values that Americans have the responsibility to uphold.
Hope. Unity. Yes We Can. Yes We Did?
Obama admitted one regret during his last State of the Union: the country seems to be more divided as he concludes his presidency. Some people blame Obama for this division.
The policies and strategies of our 44th president are certainly up for criticism, but I think history will remember him positively for his idealism. He wanted opportunity for the children of undocumented immigrants. He wanted to protect the environment. He wanted to legitimize military action by joining with allies and getting congressional approval. He wanted to stop gun violence. He wanted everyone to have access to health care.
I will remember him for being a good dude. He was a class act and a role model for a young man these last eight years. He was sharp, thoughtful, reflective. He was funny. He cared about morality, and his eloquence matched his heart. I could count on him for a touching speech during a time of tragedy, or a witty rejoinder to a sportscaster poking fun at his March Madness bracket.
Obama’s presidency agitated many people. Including the 45th president, who began his ascent of American politics by spouting an unfounded conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not an American citizen.
Like the manipulating narcissist he is, Donald Trump held a press conference in September 2016 claiming credit for bringing the ‘birther’ issue to rest, reassuring the world that Obama was, indeed, an American citizen.
Donald Trump cares nothing about the American story or the American dream. He aims to vindictively repeal Obama’s signature legislative healthcare achievement and build a monument to his own racist campaign in the form of a wall on our southern border. He attacks the character of war veterans and civil rights heroes when they criticize him, but praises repressive foreign leaders when they compliment him.
Two weeks after his election, Trump settled a $25 million fraud lawsuit for operating a fake university, where he used his image of business excellence to con hardworking Americans into giving him money. Only no one seems to care about this fraud settlement, because he has created so much outrage and chaos with his conflicts of interest, cabinet picks, media bashing, blatant lies, inflammatory tweets, and a host of other scandals.
Trump is a unique threat to American democracy. Which is why Obama spent much of his final speech urging Americans not to take our democracy for granted.
In the 1960s Dr. King called for “creative protest in order to break down all of those barriers that make it impossible for the dream to be realized.” The idea was using non-violence to show moral superiority of the cause. To gnaw at the conscience of those in power and, thus, create laws to ensure equal treatment. Laws were a temporary fix. Long-term, King envisioned a world where the hearts and minds of all races, religions, and nationalities were transformed. A world where everyone would live together in peace.
I’m not sure what creative protest Dr. King would have in mind for an American president with no conscience. But the dreams of King and Obama are in grave danger.
Dr. King ended his American Dream speech, as Obama did in his farewell address, with a call to action. He called for the students in the audience “not to be detached spectators, but involved participants in this great drama that is taking place in our nation and around the world.” He vowed to be maladjusted. Though everyone wants to be well-adjusted in life and in society, there are situations that call upon men of good will to maladjusted. To not give in to the status quo, but instead to fight for a deeper purpose– like the principles of the Declaration and the possibility of a universal brotherly love.
“It may well be that the salvation of our world lies in the hands of the maladjusted … I believe that it is through such maladjustment that we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.”