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Cornel West: President Obama Doesn’t Belong on Any Shirt with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X

Web ExclusiveOctober 06, 2014
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In part two of our interview, Dr. Cornel West compares the legacy of President Obama to another Nobel Prize winner, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Barack Obama commits war crimes — Somalia, Yemen. He commits war crimes in Pakistan, Afghanistan,” West said. “Martin Luther King Jr. tried to keep a spotlight on war crimes, to keep track of the innocents killed … There is a major clash. That is why I tell my young brothers and sisters when they walk around with their little sweater Martin, Malcolm and Barack Obama, I say, 'Please. That's like Coltrane and Sarah Vaughan and Pat Boone. They are a very different tradition.’ We love brother Pat, but he doesn’t belong on that shirt and Barack Obama doesn’t belong on that shirt. Let’s be clear.”

Click here to watch part 1 of the interview.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. And yes, we’re continuing with Dr. Cornel West, professor at Union Theological Seminary, author of many books. His latest, Black Prophetic Fire. It’s out this week.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Cornel, I’d like to ask you—you mention in your introduction to the book, “Are we witnessing the death of Black prophetic fire in our time?” You say, “The fundamental shift from a we-consciousness to an I-consciousness reflected not only a growing sense of Black collective defeat but also a Black embrace of the seductive myth of individualism in American culture.” Could you expound on that?

CORNEL WEST: Yeah, yeah. Du Bois used to say what happens to black folk in “the dusty desert of dollars and smartness,” in The Souls of Black Folk. And I think what he’s talking about is a highly commodified culture, instant gratification, fleeting pleasures, weapons of mass distraction, making it difficult for sleepwalking to actually be shattered and to wake up and be concerned about deep issues of life and death and justice and struggle for freedom. And I think we live in a culture that’s been saturated with that kind of commodification on every level. Now, granted, when I talk about whether it’s dead, the prophetic fire is dead or not, I was just really down and out and being highly rhetorical, but, my god, you know, with Ferguson, with this magnificent march regarding climate change, with Sister Klein, Naomi’s text coming out, there’s a whole host of pieces of evidence of an awakening that’s taking place. So if we can make the connections and somehow make the links, I think that we might be able to turn a corner.

AMY GOODMAN: You were talking in the first part of our interview about President Obama, and we had to end the broadcast there. You ended by saying he’s wrong. Explain.

CORNEL WEST: Yeah, I think that he not only falls outside of the black prophetic tradition, but unfortunately he’s oftentimes been identified with it and confused—and it leads toward confusion, because people think that somehow Barack Obama is the culmination of Frederick Douglass and Martin and Malcolm and Ida and Ella and others, and it’s the exact opposite, that he is as establishmentarian, he is as much pro-status quo, as a Bill Clinton or a Hillary Clinton or any other neoliberal opportunist. And that needs to be said over and over again. It leads toward unbelievable confusion, and in the end it leads toward capitulation.

AMY GOODMAN: You were a big supporter of his, to start.

CORNEL WEST: In 2008, I thought, in fact—well, I was a critical supporter, and I thought that he was much better than what the mean-spirited, cold-hearted Republican Party would put forward. But when I talked with him for five or six hours, my question was: What is your relation to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.? And I was convinced that he was much more progressive. I’d use examples like Harold Washington, talked about González from Texas, those who were inside of the system but were very progressive. But I also promised him that the day he won, I would breakdance in the afternoon, and then next morning, I would emerge as his major critic. And I’ve been true to my word in that sense.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But for many African Americans, even activists, who see the constant racial attacks from the right on Obama, the constant belittling of his presidency, it becomes very difficult for them to at the same time raise independent left criticisms of him.

CORNEL WEST: That’s exactly right, brother. You’ve hit the nail on the head. And we have to do both. That’s when I say when I love the brother, it means we have to tell the truth about him. He’s not a Muslim.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, even the Secret Service issue today with the lack of protection of him.

CORNEL WEST: Secret Service issue, the flawed—the lack of protection, you know, and the right wing lying on and calling him a Muslim, lying on and calling him a socialist. He’s definitely not a socialist.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Twenty-five percent of Americans don’t even believe he was born in the U.S.

CORNEL WEST: Don’t even believe he’s born in the U.S., absolutely right. But we have to be able to separate those kind of lies from—

AMY GOODMAN: They don’t realize that—

CORNEL WEST: —the kind of lies and crimes that the system that he heads promotes. And somehow you’ve got to walk that tightrope.

AMY GOODMAN: It might make many Hawaiian separatists happy to believe that Hawaii isn’t a part of the United States.

CORNEL WEST: That’s true. That’s true.

AMY GOODMAN: But I don’t know if that’s what they’re thinking.

CORNEL WEST: That’s very true. That’s very true. But I do think that awakening’s set in, though. I think that there’s fewer, fewer illusions about the present administration. I think it’s fairly clear that the Wall Street links to him are tight. It’s fairly clear that the assassination of American citizens with no due process or judicial review needs to be called into question. It’s very clear that the drones really are crimes against humanity. And the same is true in the Middle East in terms of Palestinian babies killed without any kind of impunity [sic] whatsoever on behalf of the Israeli occupiers. Those are the kind of issues people see more and more clearly, and I think they begin to acknowledge the degree to which some of the things that we critics have been saying are not just personal catharsis, but actually based on evidence.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to President Obama referring to Ferguson in his address at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual awards dinner recently.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I know that nothing any of us can say can ease the grief of losing a child so soon. But the anger and the emotion that followed his death awakened our nation once again to the reality that people in this room have long understood, which is, in too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement. Too many young men of color feel targeted by law enforcement, guilty of walking while black or driving while black, judged by stereotypes that fuel fear and resentment and hopelessness. We know that statistically, in everything from enforcing drug policy to applying the death penalty, to pulling people over, there are significant racial disparities. That’s just the statistics. One recent poll showed that the majority of Americans think the criminal justice system doesn’t treat people of all races equally. Think about that. That’s not just blacks, not just Latinos or Asians or Native Americans saying things may not be fair; that’s most Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama addressing the Congressional Black Caucus. Cornel West, his dealing with issues of race, of mass incarceration?

CORNEL WEST: Yeah, I mean, part of the problem is, is that anybody who believes deep down in their soul what he said would make it a priority in their actions in the administration. And it’s fairly clear that the vicious criminal justice system, which itself is criminal, has not been a major priority of the Obama administration. The new Jim Crow, prison-industrial complex, even with Eric Holder—Eric Holder has been decent on civil rights. He gets an F for civil liberties. He gets an F when it comes to protecting the mass surveillance. He gets an F in protecting his Wall Street friends—no prosecution of any Wall Street executives. When it comes to new Jim Crow, he made some gestures, but it was not a major priority. So when you have a speech like that, you’re looking for action, you’re looking for policy, not just words in the air.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, it’s interesting. He says the polls show that most Americans believe that the criminal justice system is unfair. He didn’t say, “The criminal justice system is unfair. And I’m going to do something about it.”

CORNEL WEST: And he said, “And many minority youth feel as if.” Feel as if? It’s an objective fact. And not only that, but how do you feel about it, Mr. President? We want to hear normative claims coming from your soul. And we do get those normative claims when he’s in front of other groups, you see. He doesn’t go in front of AIPAC and say, “Well, Jews feel as if they don’t have security.” No, no, he lays it out. And he goes to the Catholics, says the same thing. Goes to the Business Roundtable. He doesn’t say, “Wall Street feels as if.” No, no, he lays it out. Gets in front of black folk, you know, we get the superficial performance.

AMY GOODMAN: Right now, President Obama is bombing Iraq, bombing Syria. Can you compare Dr. Martin Luther King—he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, President Obama also won the Nobel Peace Prize—and what they say about war?

CORNEL WEST: Well, I mean, one, I think most of us agree that it was just a joke that a war president would win the Nobel Peace Prize. But it’s happened before. Theodore Roosevelt won, and of course Henry Kissinger, war criminal par excellence, won. So the Nobel Prize committee has made some real mistakes in that regard. But Martin Luther King Jr. was not just a man of peace. He was a radical pacifist, and so he was against war across the board. And what a stark contrast it is. Now, myself, I’m not a pacifist at all. I believe in just war. I would have joined the spirit of the nation to fight against apartheid. I would have joined armies to fight against a thug named Hitler. I would join various movements, out of a motivation for self-defense, to actually pick up arms in this regard. I’m against genocide. I’m against fascism. I’m willing to fight against them, so that in that sense I think one can still be committed to justice and committed to peace, but recognize the circumstances under which one does have to fight. Martin Luther King Jr. would disagree with that. My dear brother Desmond Tutu would disagree with that. Barack Obama has imperial armies with imperial wars going on simultaneously in various parts of the world.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, let’s turn to a clip of President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. This was in 2009.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We must begin by acknowledging a hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations, acting individually or in concert, will find the use of force not only necessary, but morally justified. I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: It merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naïve, in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was President Obama and his Nobel Peace Prize speech, talking about his relationship to the King legacy and his duties as chief of state. Let’s go to Dr. Martin Luther King in his own words. This is an excerpt of his 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam.”

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, but rather to my fellow Americans. That is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at Riverside Church one year before he was assassinated. These two speeches together, could you comment on them, especially Obama’s reference to he has a duty as a chief of state that is distinct from the moral legacy that Martin Luther King gave him?

CORNEL WEST: Yeah, I think that, in many ways, Barack Obama was talking about the centrality of political calculation tied to national security interests, usually the interests of big banks, big corporations and the military arms industry, whereas Brother Martin was a grand critic of empire in the name of the precious humanity of poor people and oppressed people. So you get a major clash. And in the end, it’s all about the actions. In the end, Barack Obama commits war crimes in Somalia and Yemen, commits war crimes in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And Martin Luther King Jr. tries to keep the spotlight on the war crimes, to keep track of the innocent children who were being killed, the innocent men and women who were being killed. So you get a major clash. And that’s why I tell my young brothers and sisters, when they walk around with this little sweater of Martin, Malcolm and Barack Obama, I say, “Please. That’s like Coltrane and Sarah Vaughan and Pat Boone.” He’s a very different tradition. We love Brother Pat, but he doesn’t belong on that shirt. And Barack Obama does not belong on that shirt. Let’s be clear. Let’s keep track of the prophetic fire of those on that shirt. Unbelievable sacrifice.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think he has demobilized progressives in the United States, the very people that elected him?

CORNEL WEST: No doubt about it. Absolutely. He’s set back progressive movements. He’s set back prophetic possibilities in black America. And one of the aims of this text is to get back on that love train, get back on the courage train, get back on the justice train, that he is not a conductor. He is a president who’s doing what he can based on his choices as a neoliberal opportunist. Let’s be clear who the real thing is—Du Bois, Martin, Malcolm, Ida, Ella, Frederick Douglass. Those are the real ones.

AMY GOODMAN: For people who are just tuning in, if you can just go through, once again, but we won’t interrupt, from Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass right through to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Go through the people you chose and describe them to us.

CORNEL WEST: Yeah, well, what we tried to do is to focus on Frederick Douglass setting the highest standard, telling the truth about white supremacist slavery and understanding America being predicated very much on slave labor, connecting it to women’s struggle, connecting it to critiques of the United States seizing Mexican lands and so forth—Brother Juan pointed out earlier. And then, of course, Ida B. Wells, born a slave, as well, but looking raw terror of Jim and Jane Crow in the face and standing tall, being willing to tell the truth, as a journalist, and to juxtapose that with the very low-brow and mediocre journalism of so many black folk on television and writing newspapers today.

Then, of course, there’s Martin and Malcolm. And Martin and Malcolm and Ella all go hand in hand. Ella Baker, grassroot organizing. Ella Baker, truth teller, quiet dignity, but always galvanizing others with her spirit of resistance. Brother Martin being willing to pay the ultimate price, always growing, critic of empire, in love with poor people across the board. And then there’s Malcolm, who in many ways isn’t—in some ways, he does stand out more in the book than anybody else, because he’s got such a—what I call parrhesia, a fearless speech, unintimidated speech, that he’s willing to speak truth and unsettle everybody, including black folk. He’s critical of black leaders across the board, and yet he’s got so much love in him, deep, deep love in him. Then, Du Bois—

AMY GOODMAN: This is an excerpt of Malcolm X—

CORNEL WEST: Ooh, let Malcolm—

AMY GOODMAN: —speaking at the Audubon Ballroom six months before he was assassinated in 1965. It’s called “By Any Means Necessary.”

MALCOLM X: One of the first things that the independent African nations did was to form an organization called the Organization of African Unity. The purpose of our Organization of Afro-American Unity, which has the same aim and objective: to fight whoever gets in our way, to bring about the complete independence of people of African descent here in the Western Hemisphere, and first here in the United States, and bring about the freedom of these people by any means necessary. That’s our motto.

The purpose of our organization is to start right here in Harlem, which has the largest concentration of people of African descent that exists anywhere on this Earth. There are more Africans here in Harlem than exist in any city on the African continent, because that’s what you and I are: Africans.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been watching Malcolm X speaking at the Audubon Ballroom six months before he was assassinated. He is included in your list of six black prophetic fire voices, Professor Cornel West. Malcolm X and W. E. B. Du Bois.

CORNEL WEST: Yeah, well, you can just see how unafraid he is. You can see the love flowing. You see the courage. You see the willingness to pay the price. That’s what we need today. And W. E. B. Du Bois, for 95 years, towering public intellectual, meticulous scholar, also poet and exemplary essayist, same kind of fire, but in his own New England way, born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Malcolm, from the streets. Part of the same tradition, both of them full of prophetic fire in their distinctive modes. And we need it so badly today, not just in black America, but in the nation and in the world. And it is coming back.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And both of them, though, marginalized by the dominant society because of the fear of the message that they brought out.

CORNEL WEST: Absolutely, absolutely. The truth is a dangerous thing. Love is a dangerous thing, especially when it comes to entrenched interests, deep fears and anxieties among the powers that be. And every generation, we’ve got to revive it, over and over again. This book, in some ways, is my own love letter to the younger generation.


CORNEL WEST: To beckon them to get on this love train, find joy in serving others, find joy in telling the truth, find joy in being willing to sacrifice, because you come from a great tradition. And this is not just black folk; this is young people across the board.

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StoryOct 06, 2014Black Prophetic Fire: Cornel West on the Revolutionary Legacy of Leading African-American Voices
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