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Only If We Become a Great People

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[digg-reddit-me]Grace Lee Boggs, a prominent writer and speaker who has been involved in the civil rights and feminist movements for the past sixty years, wrote in The Nation this past week about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Legacy of Change”. She writes:

At 92, going on 93, I am fortunate to still be around to rejoice at the new energies being unleashed all across this country by the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. In his person and in his prose, Obama embodies the achievements of the great movements of the twentieth century and the hope that by building on these movements we can become the agents of change that we urgently need in our country and in the world in the twenty-first century.

The challenges before us now are not unlike those King described: ending our catastrophic occupation of Iraq, addressing global warming, rebuilding cities and industries devastated by globalization, reducing the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots. These demand huge changes, not only in our institutions but in ourselves. To become part of the solution, we, as a people, must recognize that we are a large part of the problem. To change the world, we must practice a much more active and participatory concept of American and global citizenship.

Obama can become a great President only if we become a great people. Though his image inspires us, Obama alone is not the movement for change. We have the right and the duty to create the vision that we want him to represent. Instead of projecting desired outcomes on his redemptive persona, instead of viewing ourselves solely as followers of a charismatic leader, we can and must become the leaders the nation has been looking for. This is the best way to make us less vulnerable to corporate funders and lobbyists who refract our values for private gain.

None of us can step back from the responsibility of becoming part of the solution. Because of the struggles of working people in factories and on farms, African-Americans, women, Chicanos, Native Americans and immigrants, gay people, youth and the disabled, all of us have a new “burden and responsibility.” All of us have the opportunity to create a more human, more socially conscious and more ecologically responsible nation. I cannot imagine a better way to celebrate King’s birthday and to honor his true legacy.

Unstated but implicit in Boggs’s message is that America had great opportunities along with its great challenges at the end of the 1960s – and that we as a nation failed to rise to the occasion. Instead we muddled through – and with every step forward, we took one backwards. By the late sixties, with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and growing internal chaos, we had put off the challenges of that time – but not for long: we were forced to reckon with the stagflation of the 1970s and with the simmering “Cold” War until 1989. And today, we now must reckon with the destruction of our environment, with global instability, and with a growing gap between the rich and poor. Today, the problems deferred in the late 1960s have been growing more severe. Globalization, global warming and global instability; executive overreach, civil liberties, and terrorism.

For a brief time during the 1960s, America showed signs of becoming a great people. ((I think that there is much to admire and much to find fault with in the 1960s radical movements. And I believe that America has often shown signs of greatness – and a few times in its history lived up to them.)) We approached some greatness, some moment of reckoning – a grand resolution and revolution in our institutions and our way of life. But, in the end, the sixties radicals devolved into anarchy and violence; and those not consumed by the movement, melted back into society. The 1960s generation failed because they did not follow through – and instead began to war with one another.

Boggs says that: “Obama can become a great President only if we become a great people.” She focuses on Obama – and rightly so. At this moment, he is the candidate who can start a movement and who will focus on the long-term challenges America faces. But her conclusion is too narrow – this is not about Obama very much at all. We will only be challenged by a great president if we become a great people.

As Obama has acknowledged – the movement rising behind him is not about him – it’s about us, and what it says about us to look beyond the stale politics of tears and smears, of Bushes and Clintons, of money and more money; there are many who are cynical – with good reason. There are even many reasons to believe that Obama – for all of his strength of character – may well fall victim to the lure of power.

Truly, Barack Obama can only become a great president if we, the people, force him to be. There is a very specific but difficult to pinpoint relationship between the people and a president. It is almost certainly a sign of America’s descent from its republican ideals that the mood of the country is profoundly shaped by the occupant of the White House.

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