Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Dangerous Negro

Today in the Huffington Post there’s an article saying that Rupert Murdoch called Obama “dangerous”:

“I think Barack Obama would describe himself as a pragmatic leftist but he’s not an extremist,” Murdoch said. “I think he sees himself as a president for change and that involves bigger government. He’s made no secret of that. I think that’s dangerous.”

This statement reminded me of something I read in the YWCA Dialogue on Race reading packet. I first heard this phrase of “dangerous negro” in an article called “Struggle and Transformation: The Challenge of Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Vincent Harding, written in the mid-80s. Vincent Harding is a Professor Emeritus of Religion and Social Transformation at Illiff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, he was an adviser to SNCC, and he was a speechwriter for King. In his article, Harding reminds us that the FBI called King a dangerous Negro: “We forget what the assistant director of the FBI said about him in 1963: ‘We must mark King now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation.’” Now, Murdoch didn’t outright call Obama a dangerous Negro, no. But we all know that’s what he’s thinking.

So, I got to pondering about King, Obama, and what it means to be a dangerous Negro. We all know that King grew progressively more and more radical before he died. He actively supported workers’ rights, advocated against the Vietnam War, he developed an interest in the conditions of people in third world countries despite criticism from other black people who felt he should focus on their condition in the U.S., and he basically wanted to restructure society to create economic justice for everyone. Even as a young man, he claimed he was “more socialistic in [his] economic theory than capitalistic.” In fact, in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, which Harding actually drafted, King wrote about “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”

I really like the point that Harding makes in his essay about King’s transformation to a cardboard national hero that we trot out when it’s convenient for us or in order to make us feel good about ourselves. The following passage he wrote precedes his reminder to us that King was a dangerous Negro:

As I have reflected…what is also clear, especially in the light of the establishment of the King holiday, is that there is a tremendous danger of our doing with Martin King precisely what we have done so often to Jesus. That is, put him up on the wall and leave him there, or use his birthday as a holiday and an excuse for going wild over buying things, or domesticate him–taking him according to what we want, rather than what he is demanding of us. The temptation is to smooth him off at the edges.

Harding is not the only one to make this point. Michael Eric Dyson says the same thing in his book, “I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr.,” as do many others. For example, John C. McMillian writes,

The scores of politicians who spoke on [Martin Luther King day] about the pressing need to fulfill King’s “Dream,” for example, were generally endorsing a simplified, static portrait of King. Meanwhile, we have been bombarded with a steady stream of television commercials, advertisements and newspaper articles that imply King was merely a liberal reformer, whose sole preoccupation was civil rights.

No one has been more vocal about this point than Dick Gregory. Gregory is an amazing speaker; he’s funny and righteous at the same time. When Gregory came to LSU for MLK day a few years ago, he made a powerful statement that referred to the “check” metaphor in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In that speech King proclaimed, “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.” Gregory calls it a “bounced check.” He argues that we should put a moratorium on King’s “I Have a Dream” speech until that check is made good.

Now this moratorium is quite difficult for me. Like most teachers of public speaking, I have used that speech in my classes to illustrate the power of language, of metaphor and rhythm, and of a “black preacher style” of speaking. Of course, boycotting the speech becomes a teachable moment as I carefully explain my reasons so that the students understand Gregory’s point.

In any case, communication scholars praise King’s speech so highly for its “mastery and magic” that they ranked it as the top speech out of the one hundred best speeches of the 20th century. Indeed, the whitewashing of King is aptly demonstrated in the press release that announced the list. According to Professor Martin Medhurst, King’s “eloquent vision of a day when his own children ‘would live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character’ persuasively articulated the American dream within the context of the civil rights struggle.” Again, King is portrayed as a liberal reformer whose sole concern was civil rights.

Back to dangerous Negroes. A fuller exploration of what the FBI said about King yields some interesting revelations. The statement comes from a memo written by William C. Sullivan, head the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division, right after the march on Washington where King delivered the “Dream” speech. It reads:

Personally, I believe in the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security….[I]t may be unrealistic to limit ourselves as we have been doing to legalistic proofs or definitely conclusive evidence that would stand up in testimony in court or before Congressional Committees that the Communist party, USA, does wield substantial influence over Negroes which one day could become decisive.

This quote not only reflects the specter of what critical pedagogy scholar Henry Giroux would call “white panic,” but also the rampant fear of Communism. As any good leftist would argue, racism and capitalism are intimately related, and Communist has long been a code word for black. So we come full circle to Rupert Murdoch and Obama. Although Murdoch did not explicitly call Obama a Communist, he might as well have. After all, the right has certainly painted him as one.

Currently, the left may be disillusioned with Obama, but he’s made some progressive and threatening moves to change the state of our nation. Mike Lux argues in the Huffington Post that the left needs Obama and he needs the left. Like many people have said about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, every social movement needs someone who works for change within the system and someone who agitates from the outside. King may not have been as much of an integrationist or gradualist (even though King rejected the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism in the “Dream” speech) as Malcolm X accused. While many members of the left certainly agitate and pressure Obama from the outside, it’s good finally to have someone who’s -really- on the inside. As Lux points out, the “our fates for several years to come are tied, fundamentally and completely, to Obama’s success as president.”

The sweet irony of Obama as a dangerous Negro is that, like King, he too has the government following him around — only now it’s not the FBI, but the Secret Service.

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  1 comment for “Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Dangerous Negro

  1. Anonymous
    June 10, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    EXCELLENT post, wonderfully sharp insights about the 'whitewash' of MLK and the continuing 'White panic' that animates the hysterics of FOX News, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and the rest of the RepubliChristian Right demagogues.

    You're spot on IMHO about the double-bind for Obama, caught between Left and Right, and the ambivalent racial politics of this crisis of SuperCapitalism.

    ~Shaun

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