A Letter to the President on MLK Day

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Four years ago I remember leaving Grantham Pennsylvania in the shivery hours before dawn when it was still black outside. The bus sped across the Maryland border and then languished in the District of Colombia behind dozens of other large vehicles as time elapsed, patience evaporated and the cold set it. The Washington Mall denizens shoved their way to history; elbowing, jabbing and squishing their bundled selves through the throngs of folk and the elation that may have been proclaimed instead appeared more like icy self-interest. And yet, I can say I was there—staring at the new president on a giant screen, a president I did not vote for, a president that I had no choice to be proud of if only (though not only) because something had drawn out over a million people on an frigid morning.

            Anger descended upon my national pride when my fellow Americans began leaving, read: bulldozing their way through the crowd, during the inaugural address. It flared as madness characterized the bus line, or lack thereof. But somewhere, far away, Chief Justice John Roberts swore in the first African-American president and it is profound how language can sometimes be so abused for excuses, rationalizations, justifications, and flattery but when in its self-actualized state it converts transcendent moments into transferable and accessible currency. Barak said that oath and so our country is never the same.

            Not one of the months of the presidency after January 2009 have radiated with the same idealism that Obama conjured during his campaigns. Not one. That may be as discouraging and it is revealing, as I am convicted that often, only language is allowed to live in idealism, while actions and interactions live in a separate plane altogether.

            King’s “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail” may yet illuminate how one of the country’s very best bridged that gap. From a cell, the Reverend spews moral absolutes and extreme and unrelenting truths and definitions of the world:

 

  • Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea.
  • It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.

 

Throughout the letter, King never flinches from vehemently laying down his argument, with few qualifications and little backtracking. But these convictions, unlike his “I have a dream speech” which asks his audience to largely conceptualize, here he recounting events that have already happened, police brutality that has already occurred, nonviolence protests that were splashed on last week’s headlines and trauma that will never leave.

King’s words have so much gravity through them because they are stories of people that have moved.

And so when Obama gives his farewell address in four years, this is what I beg: five years ago you marched around the country with a vision. You are not the executor of this plan—the people that voted you in share that onus. Do not let them off the hook—do not let them rest in their armchairs, embrace slactivism or harp, bitch, complain—without also doing.  

Too many Americans thought you would do it all—perhaps you did too. And I am scared sometimes that this idealism backfired into a space where those most caught up in the throes of your language found themselves most disappointed when you failed (though they were engaged only in their own banalities during that time and did not seek to execute at their own level) and that your opponents from the start made sport of comparing your promises to your deliveries. This will reverse not when you strike a deal with Boehner, force Israel to agree to stop building settlements, get along well with Morsi, decrease unemployment to 5% or see your health care plan implemented this year. 

Mr. President, this gap will close and your legacy will persist later when you have convinced the American people to remember that: “human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”