History will record that on the 21st of January, 2013, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Barack Obama was inaugurated for the second time as President of the United States. History will record that the Bible upon which the President solemnly swore his oath of office, was formerly the property of Martin Luther King Jr. History will record this day, as it did the 2008 inauguration, as a momentous day of light in the darkly woven tapestry of black America.
Yet the victors are arbiters of history are they not? So famously thought Winston Churchill, so too thought George Orwell in his classic novel 1984:
“He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.”
The victories of Barack Obama constitute a great deal to the forty million or so strong black population and the importance of a first black president is indisputable. Yet despite this palatable sense of victory, they are not the victors. They will not write this epoque of history.
April 1961 is now considered a historic moment too according to some of today’s news publications. It was the month in which Robert Kennedy predicted that within 30-40 years America would have a “negro President”. Robert Kennedy’s own historical image is, like his brother’s, angelic in its remembrance. There is no room to recall his collusion with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s delusional crusade against “communism” in America. It is too dreadful also to consider his co-operation in the FBI witch-hunt of a one Dr. Martin Luther King. No, history has recorded that Robert Kennedy was a civil rights crusader, and his untimely death robbed America of another hero.
Obama’s inauguration speech itself was of course rife with the obligatory references to the nation’s founding fathers. History has recorded these men as deities, infallible and effervescent in their inspiration of patriotism. Their status as protectorates of the property of slave owners, land speculators, merchants, and bondholders vanished. Their successors’ genocide of Native Americans and expansionary wars with Mexico not worth the ink of most contemporary books nor the breath of public figures and intellectuals.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic role is perhaps the greatest exemplar of the veil of obfuscation that those in power place over history. For you see Dr. King was not just a civil rights activist, he was a fervent critic of U.S. Foreign policy and a socialist, acutely aware of race’s role in the class structure. He vehemently opposed the US invasion of Vietnam and described the US government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and called on the American people to “question the capitalist economy”.
The political establishment spent decades adamantly opposing the embrace of King as a figure of historical note precisely for these views. Despite being proposed the year of his death in 1968, Martin Luther King Day only came into being a full 15 years later in 1983, reluctantly signed off on by President Ronald Reagan, despite his best attempts to infer the tag of communist on the late Dr. King. The idea of dedicating a national holiday to Dr. King was at the behest of the unions, who simply told the government that regardless of its approval to officialdom, they wouldn’t be working that day.
There was little choice but to accept Dr.King as a historical figure of importance but revisionism by omission has been central to this acceptance. There is minute appreciation of his staunch anti-imperial foreign policy and even less still of his enormous involvement in the working class union movements of the 50’s and 60’s. In a morbid irony the only frequent citing of this part of his life is the March 29th 1968 meeting he attended in support of striking black sanitary public work employees in Memphis, Tennessee, just a few days before he was shot dead.
And what of President Obama? What will be his historical narrative? Will our children learn of his drone program? His apathy towards the Palestinian cause perhaps? His ambivalence to nuclear weapons and impending environmental catastrophes? His abandonment of the poor and working poor? One must presume it doubtful at best that victors will care for these inclusions.