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.
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?