President Obama, Dr. King, and Coalition Politics

Monday, June 11, 2012

When President Obama signed the bill extending Bush-ear tax cuts and extending unemployment benefits last December, the Reverend Al Sharpton was there. (Saul Loeb/Getty)

Since the turn of the century, as black leaders like W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington took the national stage, African-American politicians have wrestled over the best strategy for black communities to gain political power. The debate has centered on coalition politics versus independent campaigns, and the conflict is perhaps best represented by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Malcolm X insisted on separatism, and he explained why in his 1964 speech, "The Ballot or the Bullet": “The Democrats have been in Washington DC only because of the Negro vote," he explained. "They’ve been down there four years, and there all other legislations they wanted to bring up they brought it up and gotten it out of the way, and now they bring up you. You put them first, and they put you last." 

Compare Malcolm X's rhetoric to that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Until the last years of his life, when his Poor People's Campaign and anti-war stance complicated Dr. King's public persona, Dr. King preached coalition politics, and personal uplift. As he explained in his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech: "The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone."

In his new book, "The Price of the Ticket," Fredrick Harris, professor of political science at Columbia University, argues that President Obama sounds more like Martin than Malcolm, a fact that Harris believes has done little to help the black community.


Fredrick C. Harris

Produced by:

Jillian Weinberger

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