Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Princeton professor discusses role of Martin Luther King Jr. in age of Obama

< Harris-Lacewell is an Associate Professor of Politics and African-American Studies at Princeton University and the author of the award-winning book, "Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought."

In sync with the ongoing celebrations of Martin Luther King day, Harris-Lacewell’s address for the convocation was “Why do we care about King in the age of Obama?”. According to Harris-Lacewell, Obama is going to be shaping the concept of America in the coming years. But the fact remains that Obama, like all other presidents, cannot do this task alone. Showing the audience a picture of King sitting with President Lyndon B. Johnson, Harris-Lacewell emphasized that it is very easy to for us to replace the image of King with that of Obama in the context of race. That however, states Harris-Lacewell, would be a blunder because Obama is not King; Obama is Lyndon B Johnson, the president of the United States of America and not Martin Luther King, a community organizer and civil rights activist.

“So why do we need King when we have Obama at the top?” According to Harris-Lacewell, we need King because change needs to start from the bottom. The image of any problem from the point of view of those at the top of an organization is very different from what is happening to those at the bottom. Harris-Lacewell states that in this world there are many people who have solutions to problems.

Sometimes the solution matches well and sometimes it does not; like a nail, a screw and a hammer. A nail to a hammer is an effective solution, but a screw to a hammer is not. Elected officials tend to believe that the answers lie with them, but their answers often do not match the problems effectively and holistically.

It is not just elected officials who need other people, says Harris-Lacewell. “King needed other voices too.” Ella Baker reminded king that young people had the capacity to speak for themselves. Fannie Lou Haner made him realize that the fight for civil rights needs to include the rural black and their economic problems too. Bayard Rustin asked King to commit to the cause of non-violence wholly, for King, like most people in the South, had guns in his home and after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, had armed guards in front of his house. But on Bayard Rustin’s persuasion, King removed the guards even though he had four small children in his house. James Bevel made King realize that that the Civil Rights Movement and the war in Vietnam were related.

King’s speech at a graduation ceremony addressed young college graduates and said “Do not give up the life or pursuit you want to live, rather incorporate the fight for civil rights into your life.” Harris-Lacewell reminds us that “We are the leaders we have been waiting for.”

According to Harris-Lacewell, the way to live a “King inspired life” includes five vital elements: humility, passion, production, service, and mistakes.

“Humility is the central element of greatness. Wherever we go and whatever we do someone will always be better than we are. There are two ways of coping with this truth: we can either throw up barriers and decline to accept the truth or we can open ourselves to the vulnerability of needing to learn from others.” Harris-Lacewell emphasized the fact that bright college students live a life of relative privilege in comparison to most people in the world who do not get the chance to do what they want. Students who fail to take the many opportunities they have to do what they want have no one to blame but themselves. In the world, what matters most is whether people are able to meet their deadlines and do the work they have. “We need to be productive at all cost. We need to push past the pain, angst, stress and tears to get the work done. We need to be in service, not just to the country but to others.” But most importantly, says Harris-Lacewell, we need to learn from our own mistakes. “King was exceptional, and he screwed it up many, many times.” Making mistakes is the only way to push past the fear of failing and doing what you have been called to do.

King, in his unforgettable ‘I Have a Dream’ speech mentioned that he saw the day when his children would be judged on their character rather than the color of their skin. When King told us that he had seen the promised land from the top of the mountain, he didn’t tell us what the promise land looked like. He left it for us to imagine. We need to shape the promised land according to our perceptions and through our own hard work.

Harris-Lacewell asked a second time: “So why do we need King in the age of Obama?”

“Because we, the people, need to be King where Obama is Lyndon B Johnson. We need to decide what our country looks like from the mountain top.” Harris-Lacewell ended the talk by giving us this idea to consider: An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. Barack Obama may be a fabulous organizer of civil rights issues, but he needs the active work of organized citizens on the ground to create the pressure to legislate. Harris-Lacewell ended the talk by asking us all to “Start Living.”

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *