Behind the inaugural celebration was a backdrop of global turmoil that will push the project of“remaking America” far beyond US borders. The question of America’s role in the world casts another light on the civil rights struggles stretching from King’s legacy to the new administration.
While the media has been replete with comparisons between Obama and King, Juan Cole examines a less-noticed parallel in their approaches to global imperialism.
“there was another King, the critic of the whole history of European colonialism in the global South, who celebrated the independence movements that led to decolonization in the decades after World War II. The anti-imperial King is the exact opposite of the Neoconservatives who set US policy in the early twenty-first century. Barack Obama, who inherits King’s Civil Rights legacy and is also burdened with the neo-imperialism of the W. era, has some crucial choices to make about whether he will heed the other King, or whether he will get roped into the previous administration’s neocolonial project simply because it is the status quo from which he will begin his tenure as commander in chief….
“Dr. King frankly saw this imperial system as unadulterated evil. In his ‘The Birth of a New Nation,’ a sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama on 7 April 1957, King, just back from Africa, lays out his vision of the liberation of the oppressed from the failing empires.
“He begins by celebrating the independence of Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast) on March 6, 1957, and praising the man who led his country to sovereignty, Kwame Nkrumah. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, had traveled to Ghana to attend the independence ceremonies. He saw the victory of Ghana over the British imperialists as exemplifying a yearning in human beings in all times and places for liberty: “Men realize that freedom is something basic, and to rob a man of his freedom is to take from him the essential basis of his manhood. To take from him his freedom is to rob him of something of God’s image.”
“The state of being colonized, of being under the thumb of another nation, another people, is from King’s point of view an existential disfigurement, robbing human beings of their status as theomorphic or created in the image of the divine.”
Aside from King analogies, observers at home and abroad are trying to gauge whether Obama’s place in history, his background and his political vision, will fundamentally alter the imperialist stranglehold undergirding US foreign policy, from the blockade of Cuba to the ravages of occupied Palestine and the streets of Tehran.
In a commentary titled “Different race, same goal,” Indian MP Sitaram Yechury speculates on whether Obama can confront Washington’s longstanding—but now disintegrating—global economic hegemony (though he doesn’t get the slogan quite right):
“Will President Obama rise to the occasion? Or, will he preside over the efforts of the giants of international finance capital to emerge from this crisis and heap further miseries on the peoples of the Third World? The choice that Obama makes will define the people’s response to US imperialism globally. Obama has declared that the US cannot be indifferent to the conditions of life outside its borders. The fate of 95 per cent of humanity living outside the US, in war or peace, their quality of life, and of the air that they breathe will depend to a great extent on the decisions of the Empire’s institutional leader.
“Will any of this work towards creating a better world? Obama won the election on the slogan: ‘Change, we can.’ Past experience of US imperialism, however, has shown that the leopard never changes its spots. If so, then the struggle against the Empire shall continue for humanity’s triumph of hope over experience.”
Pakistani-American author Wajahat Ali warns that Obama needs to demonstrate his willingness to “quell the simmering discontent and unrest between the United States and Muslims”—even if it means repudiating the geopolitical status quo in the Middle East:
“Ultimately, the perceived hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy with many Muslim countries– in stark contrast to its espoused democratic ideals and values – must be radically altered by Obama’s rhetoric and initiatives.”
Cole looks back to an early speech of Obama’s that recounts his father’s experience in Kenya. It’s a critique of colonialism that links civil rights uprisings in Selma to his father’s journey to study in America. Today, Cole writes:
“Obama’s plan to order the beginning of a withdrawal from Iraq on day one of his administration is consistent with the anticolonialism of the King tradition and of Obama’s own autobiography.
“But the dark clouds over the Obama administration are Afghanistan and Palestine. What Obama accomplishes on those two issues will powerfully shape his presidency. Only if he can avoid perpetuating colonial abuses in both can he hope to claim the mantle of anticolonialism from King and from his own father.”