Given the overlapping celebration of Dr. King’s holiday and the inauguration of Barack H. Obama’s second terms as president, there is the tendency to want to connect to dots between Martin and Obama, to see President Obama as somehow the fulfillment of Martin’s dream.  Some, such as As Interior Secretary Ken Salazar have gone so far as to say that Obama is “the personification of [King’s] American dream.”

This connection is made all the more vivid when President Obama chose Martin’s Bible as one of the two used (along with Lincoln’s) for his swearing this ceremony.

As tantalizing as this connection is, the very prophetic tradition that Martin arose out of calls us to resist this connection.

No, Brother Obama, that talented, charismatic, and eloquent speaker, is not the fulfillment of Brother Martin’s dream.  
Not yet, and maybe never, unless we make it so.


Yes, we have made some strides, and yes, the re-election of America’s first black president is something, but we are not post-racial, or post-anything.   Racism is with us, the poor are with us, the downtrodden are with us, the marginalized and the despised and the dispossessed and the discriminated against are with us.

I say this out of a profound love for the potential of Brother Obama:  He obviously cares deeply about his legacy—almost anyone who would aspire to the highest office in the land would and should—and if he wants his legacy to read as a real fulfillment of Martin’s dream, he has lots of work to do in his second term.

We as a nation are an Empire today, a crumbling empire.  We have military bases on more than 150 countries, and a real democracy does not behave that way.   Martin warned us that the “triple giant of evil” includes militarism, and if we want to save the soul of America and to be true to Martin’s dream, we have to undue our addiction to the war machine.

We are a nation that drops bombs from drones on civilians of Yemen and Pakistan and Afghanistan, and we know where Martin would stand on that:  reminding us that our own government is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, and that the children we kill in Muslim countries are every bit made in the image of God as our children in Newtown and elsewhere.


On the militarism issue, let us not deceive ourselves. Martin had a very specific idea about where our resources as a society should be spent, and it was not for the military-industrial complex. It was to put food in the wrinkled stomachs of God’s children. Yet since his time we see every American president, Democrat and Republican, go down to put a wreath down on Martin’s tomb, and then move right back to engaging in warfare. Our society is more militarized than it was in Martin’s age, and we now spend more in our military spending than the next 12 countries combined. If in the 1960s Martin called the United States the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” what would he say about us today, after the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghanis?


martin more money on military than social uplift is spiritual death  Martin had said that a nation that spends more on the military than on programs of social uplift is already approaching “spiritual death.”

  By that reckoning, we have to be bold enough to ask–and answer this question:  how is the soul of America doing today?

We have to have the honesty and moral clarity to admit that we as a people are not doing so well, and that the diseases of racism, classism, sexism, materialism, militarism, etc., are eating away at the soul of our nation.     We have work to do, and we cannot rest on a delusional mythology of having realized Martin’s dream when we are even sicker than we were in his age.


We are a nation that has bailed out the bank industries and the auto industries, but we have not bailed out poor working people, we have not bailed out families, we have not bailed out the elderly and the sick, we have not bailed out the college students buried under loans.

As Brother West has said, Barack Obama is “a” fulfillment of Martin’s dream, not “the” fulfillment of that dream. Let me say in the tradition of Martin that there can be no disappointment where there is not great love. As one who loves and prays for Brother Obama and yet is severely disappointed in him and many of his decisions, let us speak truth to power by noting that he has surrounded himself with many advisors of the status quo who have neglected the mission to stand up for the poor. All of this and the politics based on consensus with the lowest common denominator rather than molding conscience through appeal to a higher conscience has resulted in confusing the “is-ness” of life with the “ought-ness” of life, as Martin said.

Martin luther king love power justiceThis day, every day, if we want to honor Martin, let us realize that: “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

That is the way to honor a prophet, by heeding their prophetic call, and standing up for God’s children by removing all that blocks love for all.    As Martin said, this mission would have to cultivate:

“allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.”

This day, every day, if you want to honor Martin, pick up the mantle of Martin, and continue the struggle for peace and justice based on a commitment to love for all, a commitment to nonviolence, and a commitment to “let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” [Amos 5:24]

As someone who loves Brother Obama, and does indeed pray for him and the fate of the American Republic, I hope and pray—and will continue to hold him and us accountable—that the second term will be indeed one that will be worthy of being called a fulfillment of Martin’s Dream.   That day, however, has not been in the past, and is not even with us here today, unless we as a people push to bring it about.  Time, as Martin so often told us, is morally neutral. It is only the sacrifice of those committed to a struggle that brings about justice and peace in society.

Let us not rest in delusional messianic dreams, and instead commit ourselves to the long and hard work to redeem this crumbling empire into a responsible member of the world community, one that Martin himself lived for and gave his life for.


  1. Farid Benfeghoul

    Dear Omid,

    To say it plain. All we need is Love, But is that love you and Martin Luther King – and a few others – Jesus, Mohammed, Ibn Arabi, Rumi, Rabbi Bar Shemtov, Ramakrishna, Tierno Bokar, Cheikh Alawi, Master Eckhart, Mother Theresa (please excuse the name dropping…) – are talking about really of this world? Surely that Love – provided I halfway understand what is meant – always is/was/will be there, deep within us (a common place of course!), even in the worst among us (simply because Love does not exclude anything or anyone). But how to mobilize that Love, how to bring that subtle energy into the materiality of our existence, into the solidity of so-called “Realpolitik”,when we, more often than not, have trouble implementing it even on small-scale everyday life? Perhaps by starting to believe in it? But you are right, what we definitely need is Love.
    Best regards,

  2. Brother Obama is faithful to his wife. Dr. King was not. If a man cannot even give his wife true love, then I do not trust him to know what love is. Dr. West has no idea of what it is like to be the Pres. He speaks, as you do, as if Barack can enact changes to laws and policies…as if he is a monarch…and then put him down because he does not live up to an image. Open your eyes to the disservice you do to him, and to those you influence.

    • Dr. West does know what it’s like to be human. And that’s what he and others expect the president’s policies to reflect – a sense of humanity.

      However, President Obama’s policies – not least among them the increased militarism – stand in direct contrast to the interests of humanity. Hence the indignation felt by people of conscience at the ludicrous comparisons between America’s foremost peace activist and the warmonger currently occupying the Oval Office.

  3. Mr. Safi,

    I take offense at your characterization of the US military, its employment, and its global presence.

    It’s easy to manipulate and mis-use statistics to try to emphasize your point, but it’s rather misleading. “We have military bases on more than 150 countries, and a real democracy does not behave that way.”

    We may have military members STATIONED in 150 countries, but 1 or more people in a country (many of whom are OLMSTED SCHOLARS or otherwise posted abroad to pursue advanced degrees and promote diplomacy (which, by the way, is an extremely important function of the military that you so readily demonize)) does not constitute a base. I am a military member and have been one of a handful of people stationed in a country for a school assignment. I can tell you: 5 soldiers/sailors/airmen/Marines attending school and building international goodwill constitute neither a base nor a threat. One site as an example: http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2011/sep/14/ron-paul/ron-paul-says-us-has-military-personnel-130-nation/

    Further, utilizing imagery of our military dropping bombs on civilians and children in Muslim countries is rather one-sided (and offensive), and neglects not only the self-harm inflicted within these countries by their own citizens, but also the hundreds of millions of dollars that we have spent on reconstruction, infrastructure, educational and health programs, etc. in these countries (at the expense of helping ourselves).

    Your main theme might hold weight that we have a long way to go. As an academic, however, I would expect much less hyperbole and misrepresentation than what I saw here.

  4. Omid Safi

    Dear Honey Hill, Thank you for your comment. Of course President Obama is not free to make laws, and of course he has faced so much obstruction from the other side of the isle. However, there are many choices that he has made in ways that came under his own power as commander in chief, ranging from having used drones to keeping Guantanamo Bay open to having a kill list. These are violations of human rights that even his supporters (myself included) have to hold him accountable for. I hope that being a supporter does not translate to issuing someone–even the President–a blank check. May God bless you.

  5. Dear Omid,
    I am one of your fans ever since I heard you at a SERMEISS mtg at W& M. I read your occasional blogs eagerly and pass them along to special people.
    But I do believe that you confuse the roles of prophet and ruler here. The prophet’s role has always been to identify wrongs and to call for righteousness.
    The good ruler will listen,think, and maneuver toward what is do-able. An absolute ruler may have the freedom to dictate changes but a democratic one cannot. The prophet rarely can be ruler: usually he is killed by the system.
    I too was disappointed by Obama’s performance in the first term, so much so that I could not vote for him again. But I am willing to postpone judgment until the end of his administration to see if he can produce some of what he had promised. He is no prophet in the classical sense, despite some outward similarities, including that he had to walk on a stony and difficult path. Peace.

  6. What’s with all this “Brother” stuff? It’s a rhetorical tool of the protected and privileged minorities to point out their solidarity against, yes against, the rest of the country, especially the White majority.

  7. Fatimah Fanusie

    Dear Omid,

    I agree with Farid. I don’t think your position is realistic, given the nature and history of humanity. Which large, ruling societies have achieved the ideals you speak of?

  8. “Racism is with us, the poor are with us, the downtrodden are with us, the marginalized and the despised and the dispossessed and the discriminated against are with us.”
    Sadly these are conditions of human nature which have been with us since the beginning of time, and likely will be in the foreseeable future. Try as it might, no government can do anything, or at least very little, to change this.

    If for the sake of argument I accept your premise that the reason we are crumbling is because of our militarism, then answer this question. If we reduce our military are we not then more likely to be militarily overtaken by China, Russia, or some Muslim country?

    I appreciate the aspirational dream of world peace and love, but given human nature I can’t foresee it ever happening.

    If the U.S. became pacifistic, say like Switzerland, what country would you nominate to be the reigning world power which would ensure peace, love, and freedom?

  9. Omid Safi

    Dear Cken, I am not interested in finding an alternate Empire to take the place of the United States, be it China or Russia or any other country. Rather, my hope, prayer, and commitment is to build on the dream of Dr. King: “To make of this old world a new world.” I want us to see a world in which we live as brothers and sisters, as fellow citizens, not of finding yet another master.
    May God bless you.

  10. Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied on the video to make your point.

    You definitely know what youre talking about,
    why throw away your intelligence on just posting videos to your site when you could be giving us something informative to read?

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