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The Black Commentator - Cornel West Calls Obama Out for Dissing King Tribute - Inclusion

While presidential hopefuls McCain and Clinton trek to Memphis on April 4th to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the assassination of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was Obama’s absence due to political inconvenience or personal smugness? As the candidate running on a “post-racial” platform that best exemplifies King’s “I Have a Dream” speech which hoped this nation would one day “not judge us by the color of our skin but rather by the content of our character,” Obama’s absence was troubling to many in the African American community, especially those of the civil rights era.

Most noted was Cornel West, the renowned Princeton University professor, public intellectual, and author of the bestseller Race Matters. West is not only one of Obama’s strongest supporters, he is also one of Obama’s political advisors. Upset that Obama did not pay his respects to the historical significance of the day, West posted his sentiments, “On Obama Not Going to Memphis,” on The Huffington Post.

“I want to say that I'm deeply disappointed that my dear brother Barack Obama decided not to go pay tribute and lay his wreath for the great Martin Luther King, Jr. That Brother Martin's profound love and deep sacrifice for black people, America and humanity is in no way reducible to political calculations, even for the campaign for presidency. That Martin Luther King Jr.'s deep commitment to unarmed truth and unconditional love can in no way be subject to strategies for access to political power.” 


Was this a public back hand slap from West signaling to the public as well as to Obama his concerns about Obama’s calculated ambitions to the White House?  Or, as many Obama supporters in the African American community are now speculating, is there both a personal and ideological rift between West and Obama?

Given West’s prominence and respect in the African American community nationwide, the Obama campaign knows that if West breaks publicly from the campaign he’ll take a substantial portion of black voters away from Obama come November, should Obama win the Democratic nomination.

Having won the majority of African American voters in the Tennessee primary, Obama may have felt he did not need to come back to the state to do face time. But black radio talk shows were abuzz with listeners calling in, expressing their disappointment.

Tavis Smiley, one of America’s most celebrated and respected media personalities and author of the bestseller The Covenant with Black America called into the Tom Joyner Morning show. Smiley asked listeners if Obama’s absence was another signal of Obama only courting the African American vote when it is political advantageous for him to do so. 

But this charge against Obama by Smiley is not new. 

When Smiley invited Obama to this year’s State of the Black Union, an event held annually during Black History Month and broadcast on C-Span, Obama declined, but offered to send his wife Michelle. The event gathers a “Who's Who” of black intellectuals, pundits, activists, entertainers and politicians to discuss and brainstorm where black America is and where it is headed. And this year it was held in New Orleans to remind the American public of the Bush administration's unfinished business with its displaced citizens from Hurricane Katrina. This year’s topic was "Reclaiming Our Democracy, Deciding Our Future." But Obama declined, stating he needed to continue his bid for the presidency. And in an open letter to Tavis Smiley, Barack asked Smiley to reconsider the invitation to let Michelle stand in for him.

“I especially commend you for hosting this dialogue in New Orleans. On the eve of the Louisiana primary, I visited this great city for the fifth time since declaring my candidacy to share policy proposals for rebuilding the Gulf Coast so that we never experience another Hurricane Katrina. On February 9, I was deeply humbled to win the Louisiana primary with 86 percent of the African American vote and a 14 point lead among all voters who said they were adversely affected by Hurricane Katrina...I understand that you have declined the campaign’s request to have Michelle Obama speak on my behalf. I ask that you reconsider.”

But Smiley, like many black New Orleans and now Tennesseans, feel that since Obama has won their votes he didn’t need to show up in their state again. Obama recognizes, however, that his bid for the presidency is made viable because of the civil rights movement and King, for whom he did not have the time to stop and pay tribute.

“So don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Alabama. Don't tell me I’m not coming home to Selma, Alabama. I’m here because somebody marched. I’m here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants,” Obama stated in his March 2007 address commemorating the Selma Voting Rights March. And as this country's first black legitimate candidate for the White House “Obama is virtually a third civil rights movement, the manifestation of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream. His candidacy has produced fervor in black America, born of centuries of wanting. Nearly every black vote that Clinton thought was hers at the beginning of the race has been siphoned by Obama, Darryl Fears, stated in the

And in Obama winning our votes, he must also hear and heed the moral imperative and hurt expressed by West: 

“I have a very deep disagreement with my dear brother, Barack Obama - in this case, commitment to truth is in tension with the quest for power” 

Otherwise, we must wonder if Obama can diss King, what manner of man do we have here? Editorial Board member, the Rev. Irene Monroe is a religion columnist, theologian, and public speaker. A native of Brooklyn, Rev. Monroe is a graduate from Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, and served as a pastor at an African-American church before coming to Harvard Divinity School for her doctorate as a Ford Fellow. Reverend Monroe’s Let Your Light Shine Like a Rainbow 365 Days a Year - Meditations on Bible Prayers will be out in June, 2008. As an African American feminist theologian, she speaks for a sector of society that is frequently invisible. Her website is Click here to contact the Rev. Monroe.


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April 10, 2008
Issue 272

is published every Thursday

Executive Editor:
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Peter Gamble
Est. April 5, 2002
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