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Stanley Crouch: The long road from King to Obama

Now that the hill of mud the GOP piled on Hillary Clinton has been climbed through with such bright colors remaining in place, and she remains plenty popular enough to win the White House in 2016; and now that American women can fight in combat; and now that homosexuals and lesbians are getting human rights, and Mary Jo White has been called upon to give the blues to Wall Street crooks, we can see much has changed in the past half-century.

We also know that Americans will gladly find any excuse to party. And Monday’s inauguration was surely as good a reason for celebration as any.

But even as we partook in the festivities, we also should have reflected on the weighty significance of the occasion. After all, Martin Luther King Jr. and President Barack Obama were connected by more than a national holiday on one hand and an official ceremony on the other — both of which happened to fall on Jan. 21.

For some Americans, there was a sentimentalized feeling of victory, a sense that what King started some half-century ago, Obama has finished — and that we have truly “made it” as a nation.

For others, mired as they are in hopeless cynicism, King failed to meet the standards laid out by the Black Power rabble-rousers of his day, while Obama is complacent in his own right, having become a lap dog of Wall Street and other special interests.

Both of these extremes miss the point, neglecting at once the promise of America and our imperfect struggle to reach our collective ideal.

On Sept. 15, 1963, four little black girls were killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in Birmingham, Ala., by racist rednecks.

In his eulogy three days later, King called the slain children “martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity,” adding that “the innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force.”

King even ventured to posit that “this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.”

In the years that followed, the forces of segregation were defeated once and for all. King had been right. Those four poor girls did not die in vain.

Now, Obama is witnessing something similar happening in America in the wake of the savage murder of 20 children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

This, too, was a slaughter of innocents — and it, too, was a sickening wake-up call. I have a feeling that the present administration knows that Americans are coming together, growing up, ready “to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future,” to borrow from King’s eulogy again.

Across lines of difference and division, the president is leading Americans determined not to let the National Rifle Association become a contemporary version of the Ku Klux Klan — the ugly aegis that shields all of the forces of hatred, resentment and prejudice in this nation.

Though the two are, of course, miles apart in substance and creed, they share similarly reactionary convictions — the sweaty belief that the government, with its “jackbooted thugs,” is a force always to be resisted, never to be trusted.

That progress takes a long time is a certainty. There is much suffering, much opposition, much resistance from those in positions of wealth and power who would rather have things stay as they are.

King had the long game in mind, as does Obama. Both have used their eloquence to rouse Americans from their sleep, to push them toward an understanding of who we can be as a nation. Both have used their sincerity and decency to battle the forces of paranoia and fear that bay at them like hounds.

King lived to see the civil-rights movement initiate real change in the American South and set the pace for the rest of the country. He did not, of course, live to see Obama inaugurated, but that, too, is part of his legacy.

And now the president has his own battles to fight.

Much like King, he will fight them with conviction and compassion.


Stanley Crouch can be reached by email at