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Living for Change :: Obama and MLK

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Grace Lee Boggs
Grace Lee Boggs

The new energies being unleashed by Barack Obama hold great promise. In his person and prose Obama embodies the achievements of the movements of the 20th century and the hope that we can become the change we want to see in the 21st century.

To build the movement for change will not be easy. The challenges we face demand profound changes not only in our institutions but in ourselves. To become part of the solution, we must recognize that we are a large part of the problem.

That means we can't leave it all to Obama. Instead of being followers of a charismatic leader, we must be the leaders we've been looking for. This is the best way to make Obama less vulnerable to corporate funders and lobbyists. It is also the best way to protect him from the assassins who gunned down so many charismatic leaders in the 1960s.

We don't have to start from scratch. As we commemorate the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination this year, we can look to the vision that he was creating at the height of his awareness before he was taken from us. In the last three years of his life Dr. King recognized that “the war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit. We are on the wrong side of a world revolution because we refuse to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.”

“We have come to value things more than people. Our technological development has outrun our spiritual development. We have lost our sense of community, of interconnection and participation.”

In order to get on the right side of that revolution, he said, we must undergo a radical revolution of values against the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism.

“A true revolution of values will look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…It will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: ‘This is not just.' The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach and nothing to learn is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.' A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

The urban rebellions had also made King acutely aware of the needs of young people. “This generation,” he said, “is engaged in a cold war with the earlier generation. It is not the normal hostility of the young groping for independence. It has a new quality of bitter antagonism and confused anger which suggests basic values are being contested.” “The source of this alienation is that our society has made material growth and technological advance an end in itself, robbing people of participation.”

To overcome this alienation we need to change our priorities. Instead of pursuing economic productivity, we need to expand our uniquely human powers, especially our capacity for the Love that is ready to go to any length to restore community.

This Love, King insisted, is not some sentimental weakness. “We can learn its practical meaning from the young people who joined the civil rights movement,… putting on overalls to work in the isolated rural South because they felt the need for more direct ways of learning that would strengthen both society and themselves.”

What we need now “in our dying cities,” King said, are ways to provide young people with similar opportunities to engage in self-transforming and structure-transforming direct action. King was assassinated before he could discover and implement ways to nurture this two-sided transformation. Forty years later, that is the mission of a new generation.

We have to create the momentum for these changes at the grassroots level. Instead of being seduced by Walmart's low prices, refusing to acknowledge that these bargains exist because multinational corporations outsource U.S. jobs to Chinese sweatshops, we need to create local sustainable economies that not only reduce carbon emissions but provide more opportunities for our young people to be of use. Instead of viewing success in terms of more consumer goods, we need to devise ways to live more simply and cooperatively, thereby not only making it possible for others to simply live but also discovering positive and even joyful ways to grapple with our own increasing economic hardships.

Because Detroit has been so devastated by deindustrialization, we have embarked on a five year Detroit City of Hope campaign. Out of necessity we are becoming the kind of leadership by example which is now needed.

Obama can become a great President only if we become a great people. We must grow together.


Grace Boggs has been an activist for more than 60 years and is the author of the autobiography Living for Change. She will celebrate her 93rd birthday in June. This article first appeared in the Michigan Citizen, Jan. 20-26, 2008, and is reproduced by YES! Magazine with the kind permission of the author. Also see her commentary piece, The Fierce Urgency of Now, part of Stop Global Warming Cold, the Spring 2008 issue of YES!

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