MUCH HAS BEEN made this week of President Obama’s deference to the Bibles of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., on which he has sworn his oaths inaugurating a second presidential term. Cornel West, who has taken especial affront to Barack Obama’s exploitation of King’s “prophetic fire for a moment of presidential pageantry,” has for months now referred to the present Oval Office occupant as a Rockefeller Republican in blackface.
That’s one way in which to derive offence. Another begins with reflection on Nelson Rockefeller’s failed bid in 1964 for the primary nomination of the Party of Lincoln, a loss resulting from the success of Barry Goldwater and the surging right wing of the GOP. A half-century later, the Tea Party concluded that Grover Norquist was insufficiently resolute when he favoured pragmatism over the purity of principle that demanded a leaping over the fiscal cliff-edge. In such a world, there are things stranger to contemplate than the possibility that Obama indeed occupies the moderate middle.
Along with this political resurgence of social conservatism within the GOP has arrived a resurgence of public talk of god and faith. West objects to Obama’s use of a particular Bible, but I wonder how far off is the day when an American President might choose to take his oath (to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”) with his hand on perhaps another book, or maybe even no book at all.
Conventional emphasis upon the religious themes through which King sometimes articulated the civil rights struggle is understandable, given his chosen profession of preacher. But when Cornel West rehearsed his list of the “people of good conscience, fundamentally good people committed to peace and truth and justice” — with whose legacy he accused Obama of “playing“ — I was reminded of the many agnostics, atheists, communists, socialists, Jews, and other non-Christian principals who filled out the ranks of the committed.
Some, like the atheist A. Philip Randolph, were within King’s inner circle. The traditions on which these non-believers drew transcended race and instead focused on the examples of civil disobedience abroad (Gandhi being one) and the worldwide struggles of labour against capitalism, class exploitation and the permanent war economy. Nor was King himself “merely” an advocate of colour harmony and religious piety. Consider his final speech of April 3, 1968, known by the title “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
The occasion of this speech was the Memphis Sanitation Strike, and it contains the usual tropes, biblical stories and allusions — but then there are remarkable passages such as these, which I think deserve generous citation:
… we are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy — what is the other bread? — Wonder Bread. And what is the other bread company, Jesse? Tell them not to buy Hart’s bread. As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain. We are choosing these companies because they haven’t been fair in their hiring policies; and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying, they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike. And then they can move on downtown and tell Mayor Loeb to do what is right.
But not only that, we’ve got to strengthen black institutions. I call upon you to take you money out of the banks downtown and deposit you money in Tri-State Bank — we want a “bank-in” movement in Memphis. So go by the savings and loan association. I’m not asking you something that we don’t do ourselves at SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We’re just telling you to follow what we’re doing. Put your money there. You have six or seven black insurance companies in Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an “insurance-in.”
Now there are some practical things we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base. And at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts. I ask you to follow through here.
That is nothing if not the touch of the infidel Randolph, who throughout his life — a good portion of it spent at King’s side — emphasized above all else workers’ rights and the economic misery of the poor and unemployed.
Is it not then fair to conclude that the materialist, socialist and radical roots of the civil rights period have been submerged in favour of a narrative which emphasizes feel-good biblical stories and conventional Christian piety? An intellectually honest account of West’s “Black tradition” would have to acknowledge and seek to reintegrate, for example, the anti-theism of W. E. B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass’s critique of Christian hypocrisy, and gay-rights advocate Bayard Rustin’s homosexuality — which for much of his life made him the focus of attacks from fellow black civil rights advocates. Also an essential element of this tradition are Jews such as Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, who along with King paid for their principles in the denomination of blood.
On the other side of this sorry coin we discern the elevation of faith to its cardinal position among the virtues. By means of this lazy and pernicious manœuvre, the honour of presiding over the funeral service of Coretta Scott King fell to the awful and embarrassing “Bishop” Eddy Long. In one column of the historical ledger the brave secular humanist contributions to civil rights are discounted, while on the other great scads of prima facie faith-based credibility and of tax-free money are tossed at black leaders whose only credential is their religious title — in the case of Long from the “International College of Excellence.” By all means, take offence if you must at Obama’s appropriation of the King Bible. But remember also that there was much more to the civil rights movement than piety and a view of the mountain top.