With a Haitian disaster, two wars and a financial crisis on his plate, president Barack Obama nonetheless took time to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the history of the civil rights movement. The president and his family, accompanied by White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Joshua DuBois, executive director of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, spent the Sunday before the national holiday celebrating King’s birthday at the historic Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in northwest Washington DC—where a 27-year-old King had preached in 1956.
His address, delivered to a welcoming, almost entirely black congregation, yoked together the history of the struggle for equality and the contemporary political challenges facing black and indeed all Americans. Watch:
Unemployment is at its highest level in more than a quarter of a century. Nowhere is it higher than the African American community. Poverty is on the rise. Home ownership is slipping. Beyond our shores, our sons and daughters are fighting two wars. Closer to home, our Haitian brothers and sisters are in desperate need. Bruised, battered, many people are legitimately feeling doubt, even despair, about the future. Like those who came to this church on that Thursday in 1956, folks are wondering, where do we go from here?
In Obama’s case, it was to Massachusetts, where the race in a special election to fill late senator Ted Kennedy’s seat in Congress has gone disastrously for the once-favored Democrat, Martha Coakley. By sending Obama as well as Bill Clinton and several veteran campaign fixers, the White House and the Democratic Party are telegraphing how important it is for them to hold the line. And they’re right: This seat represents the 60th vote in a Congressional body already strangled by the threat of filibusters; the health care reform bill that was a coda to Kennedy’s lifetime as a progressive legislator, is not yet inked; and the fate of Democrats in true-blue Massachusetts will be a canary in the mine for Democratic politicians heading into a tough election year. Indeed, conservative are ebullient at the possibility that Republican Scott Brown might take Kennedy’s seat. Perennial GOP activist Grover Norquist said gleefully: “This is one of those lopsided things where if they win it’s nothing, and if we win it’s the cover of Time magazine.”
But outside of the national political media, few people seem to understand the truly precarious state of affairs in Massachusetts. Just hours after delivering his sermon, Obama traveled to Massachusetts to lay out the stakes—laboring under an unexpressed but clear expectation that he will be able to draw out the black vote that could make the difference in a special election with notoriously low turnout. Speaking on behalf of Coakley at a rally distinguished by lackluster crowd energy and very few black faces, Obama said, "If you were fired up in the last election, I need you more fired up in this election."
The lingering excitement of Obama's election may not be enough to carry Coakley. But in many ways, Obama’s message at the podium in Boston and at the pulpit in Washington revolved around the same theme: Agency. In church, he used the formulation that has been his standard frame of reference for post-Civil Rights black politics. He urged listeners “in this Joshua generation [to] learn how that Moses generation overcame,” he said. The solution? Political action. He continued:
They understood that as much as our government and our political parties had betrayed them in the past — as much as our nation itself had betrayed its own ideals — government, if aligned with the interests of its people, can be — and must be — a force for good. So they stayed on the Justice Department. They went into the courts. They pressured Congress, they pressured their President. They didn't give up on this country. They didn't give up on government. They didn't somehow say government was the problem; they said, we're going to change government, we're going to make it better. Imperfect as it was, they continued to believe in the promise of democracy; in America's constant ability to remake itself, to perfect this union.
If anything, this was a lofty call to get out the vote, all year and across the country. Will it work? In Massachusetts, pushing back King's day of service to Tuesday might do the trick.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.