Is Barack Obama a True Civil Rights Leader?
(ThyBlackMan.com) I gave a speech at a church in upstate New York shortly after Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. During the service, the choir director took the liberty of changing the words from the song “We shall overcome,” to “We HAVE overcome.” I also remember hearing a woman outside the speech proudly announce that she had just bought a new picture of President Barack Obama. The woman said she was going to put the image right next to her pictures of Martin Luther King and Jesus. Apparently, Obama’s election was a second-coming of Juneteenth for those who seemed to feel that a black president could do no wrong.
But there is a more fundamental question in all of this: Should President Obama’s image be placed next to those who’ve fought for Civil Rights in the past? In recent survey by YourBlackWorld.com, 62.9% of the 734 respondents said they do not consider President Barack Obama to be a true Civil Rights Leader. Another 28.5% said that they do consider President Obama to be a Civil Rights leader. The rest claim they aren’t sure.
According to reference.com, Civil Rights are defined as “rights to personal liberty established by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. constitution and certain Congressional acts, especially as applied to an individual or a minority group.”
The Your Black World survey results are in some degree of contrast to a recent ranking of the top Civil Rights leaders of the 21st century written by Bakari Kitwana and Hakim Hasan. On their list, President Obama was ranked number one, followed by Rev. Al Sharpton and a host of others. I respect the opinions of the authors, but also felt that varying points of view should be considered on this important issue. For the sake of full disclosure, I was also ranked on the list, but I provide my opinions independent of where I was ranked in the article.
The most fundamental question is whether or not we can or should consider President Obama to be a Civil Rights leader. For many African Americans, a Civil Rights leader would be an individual who has fought to secure rights and liberties for African American people. By making it clear that he must lead all Americans and not just the black community, President Obama does not belong at the top of the list of those who’ve sacrificed for the advancement of black people. Therefore, the woman who wanted to put Obama’s picture next to Martin Luther King and Jesus would be just as wrong to put their pictures next to George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. In other words, Barack Obama is no Martin Luther King and if King were alive today, he’d work with Obama but find himself frustrated by the president’s resistance to fighting the racial inequality that continues to exist to this day.
But fighting for African American issues is not the only way to be a Civil Rights leader. There are quite a few Americans who fight for the rights of animals, the poor, the gay community, etc. In that regard, one might consider President Obama to be a Civil Rights leader for all of America, not just black America. The problem, however, is that the President of the United States runs the executive branch of the government. The goal of the executive branch (as we learned in 8th grade Civics class) is to execute the law, not change or interpret it. Although we often see presidents working with Congress to change the law, the fact remains that the President doesn’t quite have the latitude to behave as the ambitious grass roots leader who pushes to change the way America does business.
At the end of the day, the fact is that if we are to put President Barack Obama at the top of any list of Civil Rights leaders, we would have to do the same for Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or John F. Kennedy. While protecting Civil Rights might be the domain of our political leaders, they are not always first in line when it comes to providing the leadership necessary for that change to occur. Instead, the most radical change starts with the people and our political leaders are ultimately urged to follow-suit. That’s what Civil Rights leadership is all about.
Staff Writer; Dr. Boyce Watkins