By Ruth Conniff
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President Obama gave an eloquent speech at the Martin Luther King Memorial Dedication, but he shrank King to suit his own purposes.
He focused on the convenient King—the “I Have a Dream” King—and he touched on King’s commitment to economic justice. But he omitted the pastor’s role in opposing militarism and imperialism. He minimized King, the champion of peace, and he not only didn’t mention that King envisioned a world beyond nationalism; Obama actually used the occasion to extol America’s greatness.
In his focus on the civil rights movement, Obama graciously saluted “all those men and women who through countless acts of quiet heroism helped bring about changes few thought were even possible.”
Obama did note that King strove not just for “civil and political equality but also economic justice.” And Obama rightly used the occasion to point out the poverty, “rising inequality, and stagnant wages” that are with us today.
Obama made fleeting mention of Kings opposition to the Vietnam War, but he gave no clue about Dr. Kings reasons for opposing that war, which King delineated at his historic speech, A Time to Break Silence, at Riverside Church in New York City one year before he was assassinated. It was in that speech that King denounced the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.
It was in that speech that King said: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
It was in that speech that King called the United States the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
It was in that speech that King said U.S. military interventions abroad were often conducted to protect “investment accounts” in the United States.
It was in that speech that King called for a “revolution of values” that would reject all wars.
It was in that speech that King urged us to move beyond patriotism and nationalism: "If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective."
In fact, that last remark is one of the 14 quotations that are inscribed at the very King Memorial where Obama was speaking.
But instead of at least nodding to this profound call by Dr. King, Obama enlisted King in a patriotic sing-along. He hailed King as being “so quintessentially American—because for the hardships we’ve endured, for all our sometimes-tragic history, ours is a story of optimism and achievement and constant striving that is unique upon this Earth. And this is why the rest of the world still looks to us to lead.”
Martin Luther King Jr. renounced American exceptionalism.
It was poor form, to say the least, for Obama to exalt it at the dedication of the King Memorial.