Today, as he belatedly dedicated the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall, President Barack Obama made the questionable claim that MLK Jr. would have supported the class-conscious and envy-motivated Occupy Wall Street movement. The Washington Times reports:
“At this moment, when our politics appear so sharply polarized, and faith in our institutions so greatly diminished, we need more than ever to take heed of Dr. King’s teachings,” Mr. Obama said, who praised King’s belief in the “creative tension of nonviolent protests.”
“If he were alive today, I believe he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there,” the president said. “Those with power and privilege will often decry any call for change as divisive. They’ll say any challenge to the existing arrangements are unwise and destabilizing. Dr. King understood that peace without justice was no peace at all.”
Interesting that Obama chose to say the OWS protesters are challenging the “excesses” of Wall Street — because the excesses of the OWS protest are precisely what would surely have been objectionable to Dr. King. The great Civil Rights leader led an intentionally moral movement — and that morality was evident both in the goal it sought and in the manner in which Civil Rights protesters sought it. The Heritage Foundation’s Carolyn Garris explains:
Dr. King believed in a fixed moral law, an anathema to moral relativists espousing subjective values. For King, a just law was “a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” Dr. King required that his followers lead moral lives, and he emphasized the importance of faith in the face of adversity.
The kids camped out on Wall Street haven’t exactly occupied the area with reputability. The instant gratification ideology impelling the protesters is everywhere expressed — in sleeping-bag sex, in drugged-out meltdowns, in litter-filled spaces. Even if the ends they aim for are just (arguable), they haven’t pursued them honorably. “Creative tension” arises from the challenge of expressing radical ideas in an organized manner. From what I can tell, the OWS protesters haven’t given themselves a chance to experience that tension because they give into their instincts (including the instinct to take to the streets without clearly defined goals) too quickly.
Then, too, it seems the protesters are looking less for work as they are for the material benefits of work. They fail to see that excellence is its own reward. But Martin Luther King Jr. upheld the dignity of work itself. Can you imagine an OWS protester saying what MLK Jr. said in his address at the Institute of Non-violence and Social Change in Montgomery, Ala., in December 1956?
If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lives a great street sweeper who did his job well.
MLK Jr. might at times have used rhetoric later in his life that suggests he would be sympathetic to the OWS protesters’ redistributive aims, but my best guess is he’d also have a few exhortations for them.
It was in poor taste for the president to make a divisive claim in his dedication of a memorial of a man who aimed to unite.