Issue of the Week LXII: What Would Martin Luther King Say to President Obama?

October 14, 2013
Written by Marc Brenman in
National Collegiate Dialogue
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What would Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. say to President Barack Obama about policies to bring about equality for all Americans, especially the poor, the disenfranchised and minorities.
What would Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. say to President Barack Obama about policies to bring about equality for all Americans, especially the poor, the disenfranchised and minorities. Photo Credit:

Editor's Note: The essay below won first prize in the annual essay contest, "What Would Martin Do?" hosted by the American for Democratic Action Education Fund.

What Would Martin Luther King Say to President Obama?

Mr. President, I'm proud that you are our first African-American President. But I'm disturbed at your silence on people's needs during these Great Recessions. You squandered your first year in office on an unpopular health plan that cost you political capital. I salute you for risking unpopularity. But other needs cried out for your attention. When you took office, you should have told the American people that your goals were two: Put Americans back to work and keep them in their houses. I understand you felt you had to save the banking industry because you feared that the economic system itself was near collapse, but you didn't need to let it pay outrageous bonuses to its executives. I understand that you truly believe in bipartisanship, and tried to compromise with Republicans. But sometimes we must take principled positions. People are suffering.

You've taken some steps toward ending the interminable wars the Nation has heedlessly pursued. These are not sufficient. You promised more. You have the greatest reason to bring home our young people and our treasure – to help those in need. Mr. President, people want to work – on great things and on common things. Identify these projects; make them happen. Rebuild the electrical grid; put solar panels on the roof of every house; insulate those houses; plant trees on the south sides of those houses; keep people warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Marc Brenman is author of "Planning as if People Matter: Governing for Social Equity," with Tom Sanchez, from Island Press, 2012.

It's hard for a political leader to point out the hypocrisy of his opponents. But you must tell the truth. Some of your opponents have usurped the name of a revolutionary movement – the Tea Party – and take government benefits with both hands, yet want to deny them to others. Not a single Tea Party member has turned back her Social Security or Medicare. I fear they want to live in a sick and poor country, behind gates of steel. They live in gated communities and too many of our citizens of color live in a different kind of gated community – prison. Our Latino brothers and sisters who only want a better life for their children are scorned and die in this nation's Western deserts. Toward them, the proffered solution is high and long walls.

We've become a nation of walls and gates and perverted notions of security. Many on the right idolize Ronald Reagan, who said "Tear down this Wall." That wall, that Iron Curtain, did come down, but we carried it home. Mr. President, this is your opportunity to build the nation up by tearing down its barriers. In the words of the psalm, I pray that the Walls of Jericho will come tumbling down. Marching around them will not be enough.

Use what you learned inside the walls of Harvard Yard and on the mean streets of Chicago. Even if you fail, you enter history as the Man Who Tried. Raise up this nation, so the poorest among us can find a job, a meal, and a roof over their heads.

A video of the award event is posted online.

What do you think?

National Collegiate Dialogue


Is it really that easy ?

Submitted by STBONF2013-20 on

Throughout all the speculation is it really possible to say that the President of the USA is not doing the best he can with the resources he has? Coming from Canada I do not know fully the entire situation of this problem but I think that it would be safe to say that he is trying his best to accommodate the country.

I agree

Submitted by PARKS2014-26 on

I believe that Obama is doing everything he can to fulfill his promises, but if he wasn't absolutely certain he could obtain such goals, then he shouldn't have said he could in the first place.

I believe that Martin Luther

Submitted by STBONF2013-10 on

I believe that Martin Luther King would say something somewhat similar to this. But I do believe that there is a lot that the President had planned that he is unable to do because of the conflict between Congress. This standoff that has been going on between the House and the Senate has slowed down drastically any progress that may have been made in the country. Although it has not stopped it, Obama is not completely in control of whether or not some of these goals are reached. Although I agree that there are many benefits to checks and balances in the government, there are also some negatives and alacrity is one of them. To ask Obama for some of these requests is out of his power to achieve, but are not impossible for the government if they were willing to compromise and work together.

Wrong people are being helped

Submitted by STBONF2013-22 on

I think this letter is somewhat misleading. Welfare was designed to create a standard of living so that people having financial trouble could get by in their time of need but it is taken advantage too often. These "poor" people aren't people who are just having financial issues, they are usually people who refuse to try to work and live off the system while they can. This takes away from the people that actually are trying to work and do something with their lives. It is these types of hard working people that we need to take care off and not the ones who live off the system. Obamacare would increase this type of behavior even moreso

Fix our problems first

Submitted by STBONF2013-26 on

I agree with Marc Brenman when he addresses how Obama needs to start creating jobs and opportunities instead of bailing out banks and creating a healthcare plan everyone disagrees with. President Obama needs to focus on our own country first and fix our issues before we go and help foreign nations. It is not fair to Americans, who are suffering each day, when we spend billions of dollars on foreign aid instead of using that money to "rebuild the electrical grid; put solar panels on the roof of every house; insulate those houses; plant trees on the south sides of those houses; keep people warm in the winter and cool in the summer."

What more can we ask?

Submitted by STBONF2013-25 on

This article is appropriate for the time because of the recent government shut down. I understand and agree that the walls between Americans need to be brought down but with any effort by the President, Congress may have its own agenda. The President cannot take the full hit in this situation because of the disagreement of Congress to the point of a shut down. If Congress will not support any of Obama's actions how can he be the one criticized for a lack of action. Both the President and Congress need to rethink their motives and actions to focus on bettering the country rather than bettering their political status.

We still need improvement

Submitted by STBONF2013-29 on

Although I have always believed that the job of the president is an extremely difficult one, I do not think that Obama has accomplished anything for this country. We have not seen great improvements in any of the areas in which he promised. I understand that there is only so much he can do with the resources he has, but I feel like our country has not seen much improvement under his leadership. I fully support Obama, but I definitely see the point of this essay.

Obamas presidency

Submitted by STBONF2013-14 on

Obamas presidency, has been very controversial. Looking at it from a nonpolitical standpoint, not saying whether his policies have been good or bad, it is clear that he has not completely followed up on his agenda, whether you think it is good or bad. The problem that I have with this article is where he calls obama's opponents hypocrites. I believe that a smaller government with less interference and intervention would be more effective, including cutting some social programs. The author uses Medicare and Social security to call this hypocritical, however anyone above a certain age can capitalize on these programs, and we pay into them so we can use them, thus all are benefited.


Submitted by STBONF2013-15 on

I am not very knowledgeable about politics but from what I know, Obama really hasn't solved any issues during his terms. Every president gets ridiculed for one thing or another and no one ever seems satisfied with them but it seems as though this time it's even worse. There have been empty promises told to the public frequently. He also doesn't seem to be handling things very professionally. During the government shutdown, I read somewhere a quote of Obama and basically he was saying that nothing will get solved because he doesn't want to compromise his ideas. He put a lot of blame on the opposing party which I don't believe to be very professional.

Empty Promises

Submitted by PARKS2014-26 on

I would like to see a list of all the promises that Obama made that are still unfulfilled.