Today is the US federal holiday called “Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.” Also today, Barack Obama was sworn in for a second term as President of the United States using a Bible that Martin Luther King, Jr. once owned. Cornell West has a problem with this particular Bible being used in this particular way, and he said so in an expressive monologue last Thursday.
The forum was “Vision for a New America: A Future without Poverty,” a symposium in Washington, DC hosted by Tavis Smiley. Newt Gingrich and Marcia Fudge were among the other panelists, but Cornell West definitely made the comments that have attracted the most attention. Presented below is both the video that has become so popular and my transcript of West’s words.
What do you think of what Cornell West had to say? Was it a moving speech? Was it over-inflated rhetoric? Was it both? Please share your comments below.
Transcript of Cornel West’s January 17, 2013 statements regarding the use of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bible during the inauguration of Barack Obama:
Now, when I got the news that my dear brother Barack Obama, President Obama, was going to put his precious hand on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Bible, I got upset. And I got upset because you don’t play with Martin Luther King, Jr. and you don’t play with his people. And by his people, what I mean is people of good conscience, fundamentally committed to peace, and truth and justice. And especially the black tradition that produced it.
All the blood, sweat and tears that went into producing a Martin Luther King, Jr. generated a brother of such high decency and dignity that you don’t use his prophetic fire as just a moment in a presidential pageantry, without understanding the challenge that he presents to all of those in power no matter what color they are. No matter what color they are!
So, the righteous indignation of a Martin Luther King, Jr. becomes a moment in political calculation and that makes my blood boil. Why? Because Martin Luther King, Jr., he died knowing the three crimes against humanity he was wrestling with. Jim Crow – traumatizing, terrorizing, stigmatizing black people, lynching, insultful – not just segregation the way the press wants to talk about.
Second, carpet bombing in Vietnam, killing innocent people especially innocent children. Those are war crimes Martin Luther King, Jr. was willing to die for. And thirdly, was poverty of all colors. He said it’s a crime against humanity for the richest nation in the history of the world to have so many of its precious children of all colors living in poverty, and especially on the chocolate side of the nation, in Indian reservations, in brown barrios, in yellow slices, and black ghettos, then. We call them hoods now, but ghettos then.
So I said to myself, “ok nothing wrong with putting your hand on the Bible.” Even though the bible talks about justice and Jesus is talking bout “the least of these.” But when you put in Martin’s bible? I said, “this is personal for me. This is the tradition I came out of. This is the tradition that is connected to my grandmothers prayers, and my grandfathers sermons, and my mothers tears, and my fathers smile, and it’s over against all of those in power who refuse to follow decent policies.”
So I say to myself, “Brother Martin Luther King, Jr., what would you say about the new Jim Crow? What would you say about the prison industrial complex? What would you say about the invisibility of so many of our prisoners? So many of our incarcerated, especially when 62% of them are there for soft drugs, but not one executive of a Wall Street bank gone to jail? Not one!” Martin doesn’t like that. Not one wiretapper. Not one torturer under the Bush administration, at all.
Then, what you say about the drones bring dropped on our precious brothers and sisters in Pakistan and Somalia and Yemen? Those are war crimes, just like war crimes in Vietnam. Martin Luther King, Jr., what would you say? “My voice hollers out,” and don’t tame it with your hand on his bible. Allow his prophetic voice to be heard. Martin, what would you say about the poverty in America now, beginning with the children, then the elderly, then our working folk, and all colors not just here, around the world. Don’t hide and conceal his challenge. Don’t tame his prophetic fire.
So, that as much as I’m glad that Barack Obama won – I think that brother Mitt Romney would have been a catastrophe, and I understand my brother Newt told the truth about fat vampire capitalism but that’s true for the system as a whole not just Mitt Romney in that regard – but when Barack Obama attempts to use that rich tradition of Frederick Douglas and Ida B. Wells-Barnett? Use the tradition of A. Phillip Randolph? Use the tradition of Rabbi Joshua Heschel? Use the tradition of Tom Hayden and so many others struggling to produce that voice that pushed Martin in the direction that it did? I get upset.
People say, “Oh brother West, there’s Smiley and West, hating Obama.” No, no. We just loving the tradition that produced Martin Luther King, Jr. and were not going to allow it to be in any way sanitized, deodorized and sterilized, we want the subversive power to be heard. That’s what made me think, when you said he was gonna put in his hand on that bible. And I’m praying or him. I’m praying for him. As is Newt – both of us Christians, you Catholic, I’m Holy Ghost funkygut gutbucket Baptist – but we’re praying for him. Putting pressure on.
Want to read more on this subject?
Check out “MLK’s Vehement Condemnations of US Militarism” by Glenn Greenwald.