Friday, August 29, 2008

Your Black Politics: Did Barack Obama Betray Dr. King?

Princeton professor and Bennett College president debate the Democratic Party acceptance speech of Sen. Barack Obama. Drs. Julianne Malveaux and Cornel West seem to agree on Barack Obama's indubitable avoidance of race-related issues, even with the memory of Dr. King's infamous "I Have A Dream Speech" lurking in the background:

Tavis: We are live here once again in Denver following Barack Obama's acceptance speech before a crowd of more than 70,000 people. I'm pleased to be joined tonight by Princeton Professor Cornel West, whose forthcoming book is called "Hope on a Tightrope," and Dr. Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College for Women - get that right - and a syndicated columnist. Glad to have you both on the program.

Dr. Julianne Malveaux: Good to be here, Tavis.

Dr. Cornel West: It's a blessing.

Tavis: Doc, let me start with you. Two docs - Dr. Malveaux, let me start with you. So much hype; so much build-up on this clearly historic night, historic moment. Did he deliver?

Malveaux: Not at all. My heart's broken, actually. I hoped to hear more about Dr. King. As we've talked about before we came on, I hoped to hear more about the poverty numbers, about the third anniversary of Katrina, but also hoped to have this brother hit one out of the park. We have been treated this week to phenomenal speeches.

Hillary Clinton was incandescent. I think she did everything she was supposed to do. Bill Clinton, we all went into Bill's speech, President Clinton's speech with apprehension, knowing of all the rumors of tension, and yet he did exactly what he had to do. He said have you ever heard about inexperience, he's too young? That was me. He made the connect that everybody wanted him to make.

And so you know the tableaux being set up, and it's almost as if this great master rhetoritician who had us spellbound in 2004 stumbled. But beyond stumbling, that he could not mention the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that Dr. King was reduced to some preacher from Georgia, is just a disappointment.

Tavis: Dr. West, did he try too hard?

West: Well, I think part of the problem is is that it's hard to ignore history in memory, and when you do, you're not empowered as you should. Because we do want to acknowledge the degree to which this is a historic moment, unprecedented - Black man, nominated to be presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. We salute Brother Barack, we salute the Democratic Party, all of those who've struggled.

Myself, I spent a whole lot of time trying to make sure the brother gained the nomination, and I will continue to fight to gain the election. But at the same time, it's clear that when you run from history, you run from memory, it's hard to be empowered to change history to create a better future and to build on memory so that this becomes a great memory itself in the future.

Tavis: Unpack what you mean by that for a moment. You say run from history, run from memory. You mean what?

West: Well, I mean no mention of Martin, no mention of the Black freedom movement. It made Sister Hillary to talk about Harriet Tubman.

Malveaux: Come on.

West: Feeling it, you see? But it's not just mention of Martin, but it's a mention of all of those who struggled so much and sacrificed so much, understanding the weight of the legacy of White supremacy in America, and seeing this Black man, now a nominee of the Democratic Party? That's a beautiful thing.

Tavis: But Dr. Malveaux -

West: It needs to be at least acknowledged.

Malveaux: But he couldn't use the terms White supremacy.

West: No, he don't have to do - I can use that. He doesn't need to use that.

Malveaux: No, but he -

West: But he should be able to acknowledge and affirm all of the sacrifice that has gone in for him to be where he is.

Malveaux: What I'm saying is while he didn't have to use the terms White supremacy, he could have said Fannie Lou Hamer. He could have said Fanny - you can invoke, you can throw a card on the table. Tavis, one of the things that he did do - let's look at what he did do. He did lay out his policy agenda.

West: Right.

Malveaux: He did make it clear what he was about. He did talk about what he was going to do, and so we'll give him credit for that. I think he also was very noble in what he said he would not do with McCain, in terms of talking about not going around with politics of personal destruction, he would not make patriotism a partisan issue. I think those were very important lines to have.

But we have memorable lines that came out of Michelle's speech, that came out of Hillary Clinton's speech, they came out - what do we have from that? Not a whole lot; and it's almost as if what Reverend Jackson has said, as if there's a baton that had been passed from Dr. King, Reverend Jackson, to Barack Obama. I think Reverend Jackson has been very gracious in talking about the passing of the baton. But I think the brother dropped the historical baton, if he carried the policy (unintelligible).

Tavis: If he had done what Drs. Malveaux and West suggest that he should have done, might he have been accused of being too Black? I can hear some Black folk watching right now, say, "But Dr. Malveaux, Dr. West, you don't get it. He can't be the Black president. We know what this day is all about, but he can't put that out there like that on this night."

Malveaux: If Joe Biden can mention Martin Luther King, how come he couldn't?

West: But the probably is this, too, Tavis, that the Black freedom movement is at the core of American democracy. It has been the major means by which democratic possibilities have expanded for every citizen. So you can't think that somehow you're being American by holding blackness somehow invisible or subordinate.

You see, Louis Armstrong is as American as Frank Sinatra. We love both of them. So why is it that we have to engage in a disappearing act when you talk about America? What's wrong with mentioning Brother Martin as well as Abraham Joshua Heschel or mentioning a Dorothy Day? It's America across the board. It's just not what we looked like. Our contributions is so fundamental in terms of what we sacrificed.

Malveaux: Yeah, I agree with Cornel completely. The fact is that he basically perpetrated a whitewash of our history, and I will use those terms - a whitewash.

Tavis: That's a strong statement, that he perpetrated a whitewash of our history.

Malveaux: It's a strong statement that I stand by, Tavis, and I'm a Democrat - a loyal Democrat. We've all spent time being very, very enthralled by the possibilities. And what I've been intrigued by with Barack Obama as a possibility, when we saw the cameras pan on the brothers and sisters and the White folks in the audience, and what I saw was a yearning.

People wanted him to bring it. People wanted him to bring it. Nobody wanted him to come as less than. We have seen every commentator in the books, from the Republicans to the Democrats, CNN, MSNBC, to PBS, everyone else, talk about this historic day, and yet the nominee cannot?

We have seen people talk about this policy. Hillary Rodham Clinton. You've seen everybody talk about the meaning. There is such meaning here, and the meaning has been squandered. It's like ashes on the ground.

Tavis: Let me ask you, Dr. West, whether or not you think that Black people - they obviously heard the speech - ain't nobody deaf; we heard the speech.

West: Oh, yes.

Tavis: Do you think Black folk felt the speech? And I ask that because I was expecting that camera to pan that audience of 70,000 folk tonight, and I all week had been preparing for Black folk to be in tears, feeling that moment, emoting about what this meant, and especially on this day. Those cameras panned throughout, and I didn't see the tears.

Malveaux: No, they cried - wait, they cried for Hillary and they cried yesterday when the nomination (unintelligible). And that's the contrast.

Tavis: They cried at the acclimation.

Malveaux: They cried then and the tears were coming from Hillary's supporters and Obama's supporters. They cried at the moment. There was nothing to cry about here.

West: I cried when they showed Michelle Obama's mama.

Malveaux: Mm-hmm.

West: I cried when Ted Kennedy came out.

Malveaux: Yes.

West: Now, I didn't cry with the brother from Montana, but I was moved by him. (Laughter) You see what I mean?

Malveaux: The brother from Montana didn't want you to cry.

West: And I was deeply moved by Joseph Biden's mama.

Malveaux: Yes.

West: But I think that the Obama people self-consciously said, "We don't want that kind of speech. We know Brother Barack can do it. We know he can do it." They're trying to escape from history, appeal to the White center, and in doing that, I hope they don't lose the wind at their back. You can't change the world without acknowledging a tradition (unintelligible) memory and history.


Tavis: But to Doc's point though, where are these Black folk going to go? Even if they didn't feel it and he didn't hit a home run tonight for Black people, where they going to go?

Malveaux: Well, they're going to go either to the polls or they're going to stay home.

West: But we're still going to support the brother. (Unintelligible)

Malveaux: But Cornel, here's the issue about supporting. What you've seen with a number of people, people want this brother to succeed. However, you've got to get the enthusiasm; you've got to engage people. And unless some things are done to engage the base, I mean the African-American base, I mean the progressive base, I mean the youth base, what you're going to have is the sisters who would have walked 10 precincts who are now going to walk two. You're going to have the person who would have given $2,300 and now might give $23 or $100, $150, or something like that. The student who would have been spending the two weeks before November canvassing who's now going to spend a couple of days. And so what that speech did was it tamped down and muted enthusiasm.

Tavis: But maybe the history -

Malveaux: But not just Black enthusiasm, Tavis.

Tavis: I got it. But maybe the history of the moment can override all of that.

Malveaux: Perhaps. Perhaps. But at the same time, I don't think that we can afford - what we see right now is that McCain has been defining Obama. This was Obama's moment to define McCain. What we typically look for at the end of a convention is some post-convention bounce. McCain has already cut that significantly by saying he'll announce his vice president tomorrow. So given that, we have no bounce. This is a very close election.

West: He could have said McCain opposed the civil rights bill; McCain looks as if he was even supporting Jim Crow. Jim Crow's terrorism. McCain - why you didn't say nothing in 1963, when people were struggling that way?

Malveaux: He didn't -

Tavis: Let me jump in. I'm sorry; I hate to cut this off. This conversation, as you can see, just getting started. There'll be all kinds of analysis inside Black America and all across the country, as I can imagine, over the next few hours and the next few days.

Dr. Malveaux, thank you for being here.

Malveaux: Pleasure, always.

Tavis: I know you've got to get back to Bennett and take care of the sisters.

Malveaux: Absolutely.

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