Back in January, President Donald Trump dedicated his weekly address to Martin Luther King Jr. “Dr. King’s dream is our dream, it is the American dream, it’s the promise stitched into the fabric of our nation, etched into the hearts of our people and written into the soul of humankind,” the president said. “It is the dream of a world where people are judged by who they are, not how they look or where they come from.”
Democrats and their media allies didn’t like it, and as the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination approached, one pundit slapped a gag order on the president.
“When it Comes To Honoring Martin Luther King, Maybe Trump Should Skip It,” headlined a March 7 Miami Herald commentary by Leonard Pitts Jr. “Now April 4 looms, and it occurs to me there is literally nothing Donald Trump can say that will be equal to the moment.” Unlike Clinton and Bush, according to Pitts, Trump “has no credibility here.”
By contrast, “President Obama seemed tailored for such moments, as if sent from some celestial Central Casting to testify to the possibilities and potential inherent in black lives.” That invites a look at what that the celestially cast president said about King on his way up the ladder.
Barry, as mother Ann Dunham called him, was born on August 4, 1961, so he had yet to turn three on August 22, 1963, when King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. Ann Dunham married Indonesian Lolo Soetoro and Barry was attending the Besuki school in Jakarta when King was murdered on April 4, 1968. The author of the 1995 Dreams from My Father is pretty quiet about the impact at the time.
In that book, Barry’s strongest influence is “Frank,” portrayed as a kind of Grady Wilson character, drinking whisky from a jar and warning the student of the dangers of womenfolk. After publication, the author clearly identified Frank as Frank Marshall Davis but portrayed him only as a prominent poet. Frank was actually a dutiful Communist who first came to Hawaii to help Stalin bring the island into the Soviet orbit.
In Dreams Frank gets more than 2,000 words but the poet says nothing about Martin Luther King Jr. and bids Barry farewell as he heads to upscale Occidental College. There the student gathers books from the library, but not Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, from 1958, King’s first book. Neither does he retrieve Strength to Love, Trumpet of Conscience, Where do We Go From Here? or Why We Can’t Wait, also by King.
He did gather books by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and W.E.B. DuBois. But as the author explains, “only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me. The blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will.”
The author and his friend Ray meet a tall, gaunt man named Malik, “who mentioned that he was a follower of the Nation of Islam.” The narrative portrays the NOI uncritically and as a positive force. As one character explains, “If it wasn’t for Islam, man, I’d be dead.”
As Stanley Crouch explained in the Village Voice in 1985, in the view of Nation of Islam boss Louis Farrakhan, “the white man was a devil ‘grafted’ from black people in an evil genetic experiment by a mad, pumpkin-headed scientist named Yacub. That experiment took place 6000 years ago. Now the white man was doomed, sentenced to destruction by Allah.” That apparently failed to register with the Dreams author, and a decade later in 2005 he happily posed for a photo with Louis Farrakhan.
In Dreams the author meets the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. “a dynamic young pastor. His message seemed to appeal to young people like me.” POTUS 44 never disowned this hatemonger and was never openly critical of Farrakhan. So his neglect of King makes sense.
Communists like Frank are atheists who despise Christian ministers such as King. As University of Pennsylvania professor Thomas J. Sugrue notes, black-power radicals derided King as “de Lawd” and branded him as “hopelessly bourgeois, a detriment rather than a positive force in the black freedom struggle.”
Malcolm X, meanwhile, left the Nation of Islam in 1963 and after a pilgrimage to Mecca returned to America as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. After he revealed the sexual dalliances of NOI founder Elijah Mohammed, Farrakhan said Malcolm was “worthy of death.”
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was shot to death at a rally in the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. As CBS “60 Minutes” recalled in 2000, “three men with ties to the Nation of Islam were convicted in the slaying.”
Despite his admiration of Malcom X in Dreams from My Father, and the smiling photo with Farrakhan, POTUS 44 was pretty quiet in 2015 on the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination. So maybe that man from celestial Central Casting is not the one best tailored to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King on April 4.