Obama, King, and "Do The Right Thing"

Obama King giving a lecture on 26 March 1964
Connected by history, media and debate on race and racism: Senator Barack Obama during his "A More Perfect Union" speech last month, a photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated 40 years ago today, and a poster of Spike Lee's groundbreaking film on racism, racial tension and conflict on a Brooklyn record-hot summer day in Brooklyn, "Do The Right Thing".  (Poster: Universal Pictures)

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

April 4, 2008

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And now for something completely different but for the specific above date of this editorial, entirely appropriate.

As Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell said during last year's documentary "No End In Sight", "I just cannot hold my peace any longer."

In the nearly three weeks since Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered a significant speech entitled "A More Perfect Union", so much has transpired. 

Most of the American mainstream media praised the March 18 speech given in Philadelphia, known as "the city of brotherly love" highly, commending Senator Obama as even-handed and courageous for challenging blacks and whites about their racism and their racial assumptions.  The press however, has not taken the baton nor wielded the courage to follow the challenges that the senator set forth to all Americans when it comes to thinking about and discussing race and racism sensibly and passionately without a full-scale fist-fight and furious invective being hurled. 

Senator Obama's speech came in the wake of his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright's scathing -- some would say offensive -- comments about America.  In his December 25, 2007 sermon at the Trinity United Church and Christ, a predominantly white church in Illinois, Wright had damned the country for the evils he said it perpetrated against blacks, from enslavement to Jim Crow to the pernicious racism and institutionalized racism which continues to pervade the lives of blacks in America.  Prior to, during and after his speech, the senator condemned Reverend Wright's remarks in very strong terms.  ("Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems . . . ").
 Instead of setting an example and leading the U.S. into some live televised broadcasts of media-sponsored town hall meetings between blacks and whites where open dialogue and honest exchanges could occur about race and racism, the mainstream press, particularly the 24-hour cable news stations, were instead asking whether the speech had "done enough" to end the "Reverend Wright controversy." 

The senator's speech as lauded as it was by the press, wasn't played repeatedly on the television air nearly as often as the sound bites of Reverend Wright were.  On the evening the Obama speech was delivered, Chris Matthews, the MSNBC cable television news political commentator and raconteur, said that the speech should be made mandatory and played in every college and school in the land.  But the Obama speech, at least in the eyes of the mainstream press, was a one-day wonder on cable news channels, if not on the Internet.  More tellingly, Geraldine Ferraro's racist and racially lacerating comments about Senator Obama ("If Obama were a white man, would we be talking about this, as a potential real problem for Hillary?  If he were a woman of any color, would he be in the position that he's in?  Absolutely not."), were also a one-day wonder with the mainstream press, in stark contrast to the endless overplay of Reverend Wright's comments.  The press spent barely a day discussing Ms. Ferraro's divisive remarks.  Ms. Ferraro, a former vice presidential candidate and campaign finance committee representative in Senator Hillary Clinton's campaign had a history of making such statements, making them as far back as April 15, 1988 in The Washington Post during Jesse Jackson's presidential run, when she said that due to his "radical" views, "if Jesse Jackson were not black, he wouldn't be in the race."

Quietly, for all of the white Americans who were appalled and offended by the Wright comments (played in 20-second sound bites -- a look at the full nine minutes of the piece of the sermon posted on You Tube reveals a stunning context which gives a more complete and honest picture of the comments that were reduced to twenty seconds) -- there were several whites (s0me of whom have confided privately with this writer) who felt that the Reverend was telling the truth and that they agreed with him.  Similarly, some blacks would be inclined to agree with Democratic Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell when he said to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a couple of months ago about people in his state and Senator Obama, "you've got conservative whites here and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate."  The statement is not racist as much as it reveals a truism about many whites who probably won't admit that racism is a factor, subconsciously or overtly, in their choosing not to vote for a black candidate.  (Though the strong following among many whites of the Obama campaign presents an astonishing rebuke to that theory.)  After all, people vote for a particular candidate for all kinds of reasons, only a few of them to do with their policies, a lot of them to do sadly, with cosmetics.  Blacks vote for white candidates as well as black candidates.  Even with many of the three candidates' platforms (including Republican John McCain, who voted against the Dr. King federal holiday in the 1980's), it is a safe bet to assert that few people in America have probably not even read a quarter of their positions on key issues on their respective websites. 

Forty years ago today on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on a spring evening in Memphis, Tennessee on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, now the site of the Civil Rights Museum.  Two gun shots ripped a large chunk of his right cheek off.  Within minutes, as the late Nina Simone would later sing, the King of Love was dead.  Forty-one years ago today -- and one year prior to what would be Dr. King's last day on the planet -- the Reverend gave a speech at Harlem's Riverside Church in New York City entitled "Beyond Vietnam" (aka "Why I Oppose The War In Vietnam"), a speech that was received by most critics and the mainstream media in America with immense scorn and disdain, in fact with far more scathing criticism than even the comments of Reverend Wright received -- and those were played hundreds of times over a nearly two-week stretch prior to and after Senator Obama's speech. 

The "Beyond Vietnam" speech is scarcely mentioned in the mainstream media during the annual celebration of King's birthday or -- with the exception of CNN yesterday evening -- on the anniversary of his tragic murder.  Much of the uninformed portion of the United States populace is left with the impression that the most significant speech Dr. King ever delivered was his "I Have A Dream" address in 1963 at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. during the historic March on Washington, making him out to be a integrationist instead of a justice seeker, and that his life basically stopped after that. 

The press -- by design it so surely seems -- consistently fails to speak about the last three years of Dr. King's life, especially 1966, 1967 and to an extent 1968 (with the Sanitation Workers' strike in Memphis, where his life would end), for in 1967 with his organization of the Poor People's March and the "Beyond Vietnam" speech, a speech whose word "Vietnam" could easily be substituted for Iraq, America was seeing a different and more determined side of King, a side increasingly feared, disliked and despised by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (especially FBI head honcho J. Edgar Hoover), the mainstream media and growing segments of the white populous in the North as well as in the South.  Time Magazine, once called "the great citadel of misinformation" by president John F. Kennedy (who was assassinated less than five years earlier in November 1963), characterized King's "Vietnam" speech (which can be heard in its near-entirety below courtesy of Alternative Radio), as "demagogic", stopping short of calling Dr. King a traitor, according to CNN.  And The Washington Post decried Dr. King's speech as "unpatriotic".  The speech, among many memorable things linked the civil rights movement in America to the war in southeast Asia with the thread of poverty, militarism and racism.  (Some feel that this is one of the major reasons he was assassinated, and that his life was brought to a brutal end exactly one year after he made the "Beyond Vietnam" speech only adds some speculative fuel to the fire.)

The bottom line is that the mainstream press simply has not done its job in helping to trigger a national debate on race because it isn't interested in doing so.  Instead of doing programs on what it is like to be black in America or spending two hours delving into how Dr. King was murdered, the mainstream press would do better talking more about the last two or three years of his life and what his philosophies were, and how he spoke forcefully against war, and in favor of racial justice and justice for the poor in America.  This approach would be a more fitting and appropriate tribute to Dr. King and it would provide many Americans with a more rounded and complete contextual understanding of Dr. King and therefore cement and further extend an important education process, one that is bereft of a wide number of schools and universities.

Some in the mainstream press however have begun to tip the scales, if only ever so slightly on the issue of race.  Bill Maher, a libertarian and supporter of the senator from Illinois, recently hosted his "Real Time" show pointing out a late March column by Pat Buchanan, who stated in part that blacks have benefited by quotas, section eight housing, etc., and that "no one anywhere had done more to help lift up blacks than white Americans."  Tavis Smiley and Mr. Maher, who said that Mr. Buchanan's comments still represent what a wide swath of America thinks, excoriated Mr. Buchanan as "racist" and a "racial arsonist" and Mr. Smiley also castigated the mainstream press for not talking about how divisive and dishonest the remarks were.  (Mr. Buchanan apparently forgot that the "silent majority" of which he fondly speaks of did not grant this as a privilege to black Americans.  They had to fight hard and die to gain the benefits that he speaks of with such alacrity as if they were beneficent handouts -- and Dr. King was in the thick of that fight.)  The political commentator and sometime news anchor Keith Olbermann also stood up against his profession's lethargy or latent race-baiting by omission.  On his television show he made it clear that he was not an Obama supporter but implied that he knew the Clintons if he was not an outright friend of them.  Last month, on his "Countdown" show on MSNBC during a special comment lasting nearly ten minutes he said these words, in part:

"No matter what Ms. Ferraro now claims, no one took her comments out of context.  She had made them on at least three separate occasions then twice more on television this morning.  Just hours ago on NBC News she had denied she had made the remarks in an interview, only on a paid political speech.  In fact, the first time she had spoke them was ten days before that California newspaper published them, not in a speech but in a radio interview." 

Furthermore, just prior to the Texas primary, Senator Clinton's campaign released a statement calling the comments (italicized in the third big paragraph above near the start of this editorial) made by Ferraro "regrettable", a seemingly weak rebuke of remarks many viewed as nakedly racist.  In fact, Ms. Ferraro repeated the comments: "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position.  And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position.  He happens to be very lucky to be who he is.  And the country is caught up in the concept."

Despite the repeat of the comments, the media wasn't willing to replay them endlessly even as Ms. Ferraro, who defiantly resigned from the New York senator's campaign as a finance committee chairperson, went from morning news show to morning news show to declare that those who called her comments racist were racist themselves.  In a way, Ms. Ferraro's defensive comments also represent what many still think about making a statement about race, however some may feel about it being misguided at best and racist at worst.  She also did not ever apologize for making the statements she made, even going so far as to say that she would not apologize.  The mainstream press did not take her to task at all.  Whether the media, which initially was much more probing of Senator Clinton during the earlier part of 2008, had decided to lay off, took the most inopportune time to take a vacation.  In contrast, as noted earlier, Senator Obama repeatedly repudiated and denounced his pastor Rev. Wright's comments. 

Still, the mainstream press persisted.

(By the way, what was the newspaper waiting for?  The Ferraro interview on radio was on February 26, said Mr. Olbermann, who then went on to catalogue several events and incidents where the Clinton campaign either praised with faint damning or basically ignored racially insensitive comments made by campaign surrogates.  People have already long since forgotten that Senator Clinton had offended many homemaking women in America back in the mid 1990's during her husband's run when on "60 Minutes" she said that she wasn't the kind of woman who stayed at home like Susie Homemaker and made tea and baked cookies -- just as they are likely to forget that she "misspoke" about sniper fire while in Bosnia with her daughter and the comedian Sinbad, who seemed to be the only person who remembered that there was no such fire at all.) 

The following will sound like an awkward or at best bizarre analogy or logic statement: if George Clooney or Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson can say that they support Barack Obama, this writer can also confess to doing the same, even while raising some very critical questions about the candidate, for he is far from perfect. 

Even so, in this historical Democratic presidential race, one that Dr. King and his late widow Coretta Scott King would have likely applauded, it appears that the Clintons have only helped to raise critical questions about themselves rather than of Senator Obama.  The former president characterized Mr. Obama's run as a "fairy tale" in January in South Carolina, and in February on "60 Minutes", his wife the Democratic presidential hopeful, said that Senator Obama "wasn't a Muslim -- as far as I know."  Last month Senator Clinton ran an ad that some blacks rightly or wrongly felt was a racially-coded interpretation of fear of a black man (perhaps even Obama) breaking into a white suburban home at 3 a.m., and not about national security, which is what the ad purported to be about.  (The most interesting thing was that the young white girl featured in it felt that she was being used and declared that she was an Obama supporter.  On You Tube she talked about how the opposing campaign used midnight blue or deep blue tints, "scratchy voice" and other devices to scare people into voting for the senator from New York.)

Bill Clinton, the former president once ironically dubbed by some blacks as "the first black president", also made a statement at the February 2005 funeral of legendary actor and activist Ossie Davis, held at the same Riverside Church in New York where Dr. King spoke decades earlier, when Bill Clinton said what some felt was condescending or patronizing, even racially insensitive and offensive following statement: "Ossie, I'd be happy to ride in the back of your bus anytime."  The comment drew awkward applause and eye-rolling among some segments of the predominantly black audience in the church.  Burt Reynolds, a friend of Mr. Davis, spoke more openly and honestly about race and about his friend Ossie at the funeral, admitting that he had made racist remarks many times in his own life and was not proud of them, and had tried over the years to eradicate that ugly lexicon and thought from his southern upbringing, crediting Mr. Davis for making him want to be a better person, comments which brought a healthier, more honest applause from the contingent in attendance, which included widow Ruby Dee, eulogist Harry Belafonte and jazz trumpeter and Jazz At Lincoln Center director Wynton Marsalis.  (And never mind the fact that the former president interrupted his 1992 run for president to return to his home state while governor of Arkansas to preside over the execution of a mentally retarded black man with an IQ of below 70.  He also offended his fellow Irish brethren while as president he made some remarks over in Ireland that did not go over at all well with the Dublin locals.)

Speaking of the catalog of above-noted recent statements made by Senator Clinton and her husband on the campaign trail in 2008, Mr. Olbermann said in his special comment "that after those precedents there are those who see a pattern.  False or true, they see it!  After those precedents there are those who see an intent.  False or true, they see it!"  He later continued: "After those precedents there are those who see the Clinton campaign's anything-but-benign neglect of the Ferraro catastrophe falsely or truly, as a desire to hear the kind of casual prejudice which still haunts this society voiced and to not distance the campaign from it.  To not distance you from it, senator!  To not distance you!"  Urging Senator Clinton to "grab the reigns" of her campaign back (which now incidentally is being run by a black woman after the firing or resignation of a Latino woman in January), Mr. Olbermann urged Senator Clinton to "reject and denounce" Ms. Ferraro's comments.  "The former congresswoman is speaking with your approval," he said.  To this day, she has not rejected or denounced Ms. Ferraro's remarks, certainly not like Senator Obama has Reverend Wright's.  And frankly it is utterly frightening.  And similarly but perhaps not surprisingly, it is scary that the mainstream press is completely ignoring it, tacitly approving the conduct.

Why can only mainstream media personality Keith Olbermann see this regarding race??? 

Dr. King can see it.  So can Stevie Wonder.

In an atmosphere this year alone in America where hangman's nooses can be put on the front cover of magazines, where a broadcaster on The Golf Channel can blithely comment about "going out back and lynching him" in reference to defeating the seemingly unbeatable Tiger Woods on the golf course (that Mr. Woods forgave or didn't forgive Kelly Tigheman for what she said when speaking to Nick Faldo is of no relevance whatsoever to the question of the comment being made in the first place, for Mr. Woods isn't the only black person -- pardon me, "Cablinasian" -- living in America; in a year where Lebron James apes King Kong alongside the would-be Fay Wray, Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen on the cover of this month's Vogue magazine (as the first black man to grace it, with the photographic lens of Annie Leibowitz, she of the many risque and provocative, if not controversial photographs.  (See below why there has been concern about the cover while some, who on blogs say that people should "get over it", or that people who find something wrong with the cover are themselves racist.  One such comment on a blog said, "when will people get over this . . . it's a comedy and no worse than what the Wayans Brothers did with "White Chicks" . . . )

Buffoonery and coonery are just that, no matter who does it.

A U.S. Army World War Two poster and this month's Vogue magazine cover.

What would Dr. King think?

The above contrast is similar to much of the archival material and storyline that seared Spike Lee's "Bamboozled" (2000), which starred Damon Wayans and Savion Glover, where blackface was the name of the game that has stained Hollywood for too long.  Richard Roeper and Roger Ebert excoriated "Bamboozled" saying that the satire did not register and was profoundly offensive to them, in their review of the film.  Mr. Lee argues in it that blackface still exists in films, television and elsewhere, albeit more subtly.  But is it a question of subtlety?  Consider Robert Downey Jr., who will be seen in Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder" satire film in August, where Mr. Downey is in blackface.  He plays an Australian method actor who literally does whatever he can to get into character.  Mr. Downey, an excellent actor, has said that he hopes that audiences receive his character well and are not offended by it, saying in several interviews that he was going more for the type of role that Peter Sellers played in the 1960's -- not that anyone found those roles offensive mind you -- and not C. Thomas Howell's ridiculous and blatantly pitiful and racist portrayal in the 1980's film "Soul Man".  A look at the "Tropic Thunder" trailer will enable one to decide for oneself, ahead of the film.  It will also be interesting to hear Mr. Roeper's comments and read Mr. Ebert's when "Tropic Thunder" is released.

The media's stilted conversation regarding race post-Obama's speech is reminiscent of the media reaction to Mr. Lee's "Do The Right Thing".  Even before the film was released in the U.S. in June of 1989, columnist and commentator Joe Klein then of New York magazine, now of Time, an affiliate media to CNN under the Time Warner conglomerate, was among numerous publications which said that Mr. Lee's film would spark violent uprisings among blacks watching it in the movie theaters where it would play.  The director blasted that assertion characterizing it as racist, and stated that Mr. Klein and others were suggesting that blacks would be unable to restrain themselves while watching the film, which is about a hot summer day in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, a black community in which an Italian-American man owns a long-standing and thriving pizzeria business, much to the chagrin of several black residents.  The film, which ends with two quotes, one by Dr. King and the other by Malcolm X, got blacks and whites to talk about race, if not always to each other.  Still, the dialogue was healthy, and the film's key turning points helped stir the discussion, which the mainstream press failed to do its best to muddy.  There was no uprising that summer in the movie theaters.  (Some whites stayed away from the theaters, fearful that the illogic rhetoric about blacks going bananas was all too real.) 

All that happened during that summer of 1989 was the murder of a black man in another Brooklyn neighborhood, Bensonhurst, by at least 20 young white men.

In a recent interview I was part of last week with Mr. Lee, the director, in answering a southern reporter's question on whether he felt the "race card" existed in America said: "I don't think there is a thing called the race card.  Race is in the DNA of this country.  George Washington owned slaves.  Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.  When he got with Sally Hemings, she was 13, 14 years old.  So he was a pedophile on top of that.  But at the same time, these are the guys -- the founding fathers -- that framed the greatest document ever.  So that might be, but in schools and universities and colleges they're not being taught that these guys also owned slaves.  Go to -- it says it right there (in the constitution).  We were three-fifths of a human being.  So I just think until we really talk openly about race we're not gonna really advance or be the great country, you know, we can be . . . you know, it's a funny thing, historically at UVA -- U. in Virginia -- if you could show that you were a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson, you could go to UVA for four years, free.  But with DNA they might be another historic class in Virginia besides Hampton (an all-black school)!"  Thomas Jefferson "was all up in those slave quarters," the director continued. 

"It's true," Mr. Lee said.

Reverend John Thomas, the leader of the United Trinity Church In Christ (Rev. Wright's church), a white pastor from Cleveland called for a sacred conversation on race in churches across America beginning on May 18 (a day before the birthday of Malcolm X) to make America a "better place", said on CNN last night that "part of the reason this conversation is so difficult is that we are often unwilling to be deeply honest with one another that we view one another simply through the prism of caricatures and stereotypes."  Reverend Thomas added that Rev. Wright's words were "words that we need to hear if we're going to have this honest conversation not just about race but how we're going to engage the world."  Conceivably that sentiment would not apply to some of the comments in this editorial.

Rodney King once said, "can't we all just get along?"  Dr. Martin Luther King challenged us and had more than just "a dream".  To suggest that the "I Have A Dream" speech encapsulates his existence as a major figure in American history trivializes and marginalizes all that he did to challenge and confront a nation with calls for racial justice and economic justice as well as gives an incomplete picture of his mission.  Dr. King, like many men, including the Kennedy brothers and former president Clinton, had their personal infidelity issues to say the least, but when it came down to Dr. King's pursuit of a just America, he died for it.

On this, the fortieth anniversary of a somber event and shattering tragedy, can we at least take the Obama challenge (regardless of whether one supports his candidacy or not) and do the right thing and be Dr. King-like and begin to talk honestly, openly and sensibly across racial lines about race, racism and fear of the "other" in America, instead of behind each other's backs?  Are we willing?  Do we want to?  Do we care to?  It is important to note that the object isn't to agree, kiss and make-up, or see eye-to-eye, but the desire is to tell each other in person the things we often think about each other "but are afraid to say", as Chiwetel Ejiofor's character said to Don Cheadle's in last year's "Talk To Me".

If the mainstream press doesn't think talking openly and like adults in America about the problems that beset us like racism and the like in America is important, at least we can hold meetings and organize and express our feelings about such thorny issues.  Maybe then the thorns and the tensions will subside somewhat, enabling people to collectively if incrementally take on other monumental challenges.

"Beyond Vietnam" speech, delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Riverside Church in New York City, April 4, 1967.  (Audio courtesy of Alternative Radio)

(This editorial also available on The Blog Reel at )

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