Martin Luther King’s Letter To President Obama
Transcribed by Ahmed ‘Alatenumo’ Sule
Dear President Obama,
I hope this letter finds you in good health and that your soul is prospering. I wanted to write this letter to you longhand, but I was not sure if you would be able to read my handwriting, hence I have asked Alatenumo to transcribe what I have to say. So if there is anything lost in translation, please accept my apologies.
Five decades ago, I stood in the shadow of the author of the Emancipation Proclamation to tell America about a dream. When I made this speech, I never knew that fifty years on, it would continue to reverberate around the four corners of the world. Watching you as you addressed America as its first Negro president at the same spot where I spoke fifty years ago brought a smile to my face. However, I must also confess that seeing you address the country also brought a tear to my face. In short, reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the “I Have A Dream Speech” has been a bittersweet experience for me. One part of me is happy about the progress America has made as a nation since the speech, while another part of me is saddened by the lack of progress the country has made since the speech.
When I was on earth, I took a three dimensional approach in finding answers to America’s moral problems by focusing on what I called the three triplets of evil i.e. racism, economic injustice and militarism. I would therefore like to use this same three dimensional approach in accessing your presidency and the progress America has made since I made the speech.
During the early years of the struggle, I spent considerable energy addressing the evil of racism and it is for this I became famous. At the time when I gave the speech, things were dire for the Negro. Our alienable rights were denied. We did not have the freedom to school where we wanted to school, sleep where we wanted to sleep and eat where we wanted to eat. We lived in a segregated society.
Fifty years later, a lot of progress has been made. Segregation is now a thing of the past. A Negro can now aspire to the highest position in the land as evidenced by your election twice as the President of the United States of America. I am glad that the Negro is exercising his citizen rights. We now have Negro senators, governors and Mayors. Since my speech, we have seen a Negro defense chief, two Negro Secretaries of State, a Negro Attorney General and three Negro National Security Advisers.
It is not only in the political establishment that the glass ceiling has been broken for the people of color. In sports, the Negro is excelling in a number of so-called lily-white sports. I am pleased with the accomplishments of the Williams Sisters in tennis and Tiger Woods in golf. In the business world, many Negroes have excelled. There are a number of Negro CEO’s of Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies and countless Negro managers, senior managers, and directors in these organizations. Our people have been able to set up businesses and own houses, which has helped increase the wealth in the Negro community. We are also excelling academically. Enrollment into schools is much higher than the enrollment rate fifty years ago. Racial expletives such as “nigger” and “coon” that were prevalent back in the days are frowned at nowadays. It is also rare for a white person to call a grownup Negro a “boy”.
So yes, there has been a lot of progress since 1963 and I am optimistic that more progress is on the way. However, we need to be mindful that we are not blinded by these gains and thereby overlook the subtle forms of racism. After I departed this world, I have seen racism metamorphose from the conscious form to a subtle and institutional form. This new form of racism is more dangerous than the old form because it cannot be easily proved, detected or solved. It comes in many forms and guises. One area is the criminal justice system, where the Negroes are grossly over represented. Negroes account for a million out of the 2.3 million people imprisoned in America. A Negro is six times more likely to be imprisoned relative to his white counterpart. I also understand that if the current incarceration rate continues, that one out of every three Negro male born in 2013 could spend time in prison during his lifetime. I am concerned that Negroes are imprisoned for drug related offences at 10 times the rate of whites even though 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as Negroes. I was heartbroken when I heard about what happened to Trayvon Martin, a young man cut down in his prime just because of the color of his skin. I pray that God Almighty will comfort his family.
I once said that a curious formula seemed to declare that a Negro was fifty percent of a person because at the time, the Negro had half of the good things of whites and twice of the bad things of whites. I still stand by that claim. Today, the unemployment rate for Negro men is 15% compared to 7 % for whites; the median income for black men is 67% of that of white men; 8 per cent of the Negro population has lost the right to vote as a result of a felony conviction compared to 2% for other races.
We also need to be mindful of what my Brother Malcolm X called “token solutions”. While one needs to celebrate the successes of the token Negroes living in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, one should not forget the many Negroes living on the lonely island of poverty. There are many Negroes oppressed by racism, who do not have the clout, education or resources to overcome the consequences of racism. I am a bit disappointed with some of those Negroes who have crossed the color line, but have not bothered to look back at their brothers and sisters suffering the ravages of racism. Sometimes, they look down on the less fortunate Negroes and tell them to lift themselves by their own bootstrap. While I acknowledge the importance of personal responsibility, many of our Negroes who W.E. Du Bois called the Talented Tenth, who Edward Franklin Frazier called Black Bourgeoisie, who Malcolm X called uppity Negroes and who Michael Dyson calls the Afristocracy fail to or refuse to look at the structural factors that cause the Negro to remain down. And I said before “It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he should lift himself up by his own bootstraps. It is even worse to tell a man to lift himself up by his own bootstraps when somebody is standing on the boot.”
I was disappointed to see a key part of the Voting Right Act, which my colleagues and I fought relentlessly for, struck down by the Supreme Court in June this year. I worry that this gives a number of States in the South the motivation to revise their election laws, which could result in the disenfranchisement of Negro voters in these states.
Where do you stand in the scheme of things? You have made some bold statements on race like your “A More Perfect Union Speech” in response to the Pastor Jeremiah Wright saga and your recent comment in respect of the Trayvon Martin incident. Furthermore, the Attorney General’s suggestion on the need for a national race conversation is commendable. While I am conscious of the fact that you are President of United States of America and not the President of Negro America, I urge you to do more in addressing racism, especially the institutional form.
Although I am appreciative that I am celebrated for my stance on racism, I am a bit perplexed that my stance on economic injustice is generally ignored. Just as I was passionate about fighting racism, I was equally passionate about fighting economic injustice, which affects the brotherhood of man whether black, brown or white. It is interesting to see how there has been an overemphasis on my words, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”; while many don’t know that shortly before my death, I was planning a Poor People’s Campaign. The plan was to lead poor black and white people to build tent settlements on the National Mall, something similar to what the Occupy Wall Street movement did at Zuccotti Park.
It is unfortunate that in today’s America many white and Negroes live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. In short, while a number of people are living the American dream, many are experiencing the American nightmare especially in the aftermath of the Great Recession. I am concerned about the level of economic inequality in America. A country in which one per cent of the population controls 42 per cent of the wealth; a country in which those earning over $300,000 see their income increase by 33 percent over a 20 year period while the rest of America sees its earnings stagnate; a country in which the richest 400 individuals have the combined wealth of the bottom 150 million citizens is a country that has lost its soul. I also hear that the Federal Reserve Bank has been printing shiploads of money, which have enabled financial institutions and other speculators make loads of money, yet millions of Americans still depend on food stamps. I know where some of this money used for the so-called quantitative easing can go to, it can go to the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God’s children who go to bed hungry at night. America can never be a first class nation as long as she has second-class citizens drowning in the well of poverty. Furthermore, as I said before, “If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she, too, will go to hell.”
Obama, I must commend you for your effort at trying to ensure that millions have access to healthcare insurance. I know that you will face opposition from many, but my word for you is to be strong and bold. You have to see this through. However, I feel that you are compromising too much on the healthcare reform and if you continue to give ground to the opposition, the watered down version of the so-called Obamacare may defeat its original purpose.
Besides your healthcare reform, you have done little to address economic inequality in America. I was saddened that during your election campaign, you rarely mentioned the poor. Your emphasis seemed to be on the middle class. While I appreciate that the middle class are also impacted by this Great Recession, the people at the front line of the recession are the millions of poor Americans; so while focusing on the middle class, please give at least equal attention to the poor.
On another note, it appears that in the aftermath of the Great Recession, it is now business as usual for those that caused the crisis in the first place. While many people now have to work later in life, while many people have seen their pensions decimated; while many people have lost their jobs; while many people are losing their homes --- some people are collecting millions in bonuses and smiling all the way to the bank instead of spending time in the prison cell for the havoc they caused on millions of God’s children.
Obama, it is a shame that your government is pandering to the interest of Wall Street and you have reneged on your promise to prevent the lobbyists from infiltrating the White House. You have also surrounded yourself with those who want the status quo to remain, so it should be know surprise that the Financial reforms, which was launched with such fanfare, has been watered down by intense lobbying.
Mr. President, I have to be harsh with you and tell you that you have failed in the area of militarism. Towards the tail end of my life, I decided to speak out on the militarization of America. I was a vocal advocate against the war in Vietnam even though it cost me my popularity. During your address at the Lincoln Memorial, you rightly pointed out that economic opportunity was our great unfinished business, however throughout that speech you failed to mention a single word about militarism. One cannot talk about economic injustice without talking about militarism and racism, because these three evils are all interlinked. As I once said before, “A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will "thingify" them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.”
When you began your political career, you spoke out against the war in Iraq at a time when it was unpopular to voice a dissent against the government’s policy towards Iraq. When you were elected, you promised to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and you put measures in place to reduce America’s military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, you now seem to have turned from a dove into a war hawk with the words “drone attack” and “PRISM” dripping from your lips.
You claim to be a constitutional lawyer, yet you feel comfortable holding weekly meetings with your security advisers over a cup of tea and biscuit to determine whom around the world to kill. In the process of targeting terrorist through your drone policy, you have succeeded in killing innocent civilians including many women and children. Have you considered what would be the impact if other countries like China, Russia and Iran also decide to replicate your drone programme by drawing a list of selected enemies to strike down? If not, I think you should start dwelling on it before the world becomes an unsafe place to walk the streets.
I am also bothered that you have sanctioned the collection of surveillance information about private citizens in different parts of the world. Besides people, you have also been monitoring governments around the world in addition to the United Nations. Oh Obama, I can imagine John the Baptist coming out of the River Jordan pointing his fingers towards you saying, “OBAMA REPENT FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS AT HAND!!!” I can imagine, the Master saying “ OBAMA, FOR WHAT SHALL IT PROFIT A MAN TO GAIN THE WORLD AND LOSE HIS SOUL and I can imagine Prophet Amos screaming at the top of his voice, “ OBAMA, LET JUSTICE ROLL DOWN LIKE WATERS AND RIGHTEOUSNESS LIKE A MIGHTY STREAM.”
In addition, your East Asian foreign policy or the so-called “Pivot to the East” programme seems to me like empire building. Why do you want to increase America’s hegemony in the East while millions of American’s cannot afford decent accommodation, decent clothing and decent food? As the saying goes, charity begins at home.
Reports reaching me tell me that you are planning to wage war against Syria. While I doubt if this is true, if I am proved wrong then I have to let you know in advance that I find it hypocritical that you can stand before the world on the anniversary of my speech telling them about my dream, while putting finishing touches to strike Syria. As you are well aware, I am a pacifist and I would not be a party to any attack on a nation, especially when United Nations has not finished conducting its investigation and there is no clear evidence that chemical weapons have been used despite reports in the media. Obama, how quick are you to forget about Iraq, by trying to commit America into a war without any UN resolution. Obama, I don’t know who is advising you, but please listen to your heart, rather than following the advice of David Cameron and François Hollande. I know that you have boxed yourself into a tight corner by saying that if the Syrian Government made use of any chemical weapon that it would be a “game changer”, however you should not let pride or the fear of how you will be perceived act as the basis for plunging America into another war.
You have also not done much to tame the military industrial complex. I find it surprising that the US Government spends almost $1 trillion on defense related expenditure at a time when almost 50 million Americans are living in poverty. Do we really need to spend this amount of money on our military?
In 2009 when you won the Nobel Peace Prize, you said you were, “surprised and deeply humbled” by the award. During your speech, you quoted me and though you acknowledged that you stood there as a consequence of my work, you also said that,” the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.” How wrong can you be? Don’t you know that, “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows?” As a Nobel Prize Peace recipient, you need to realize that the prize is a commission, a commission to work harder for the brotherhood of man. If you find it impossible to make that commitment to work for the brotherhood of man, I suggest you return the award and the money back to the Norwegian Nobel Committee.
Father To Son Discussion
Mr. Obama, I see you from four-dimensional points of view. First of all, I see you as a creation of God, a part of humanity. Second, I see you as my son. Then I see you as a fellow Negro and finally, I see you as the President of the United States of America. So just as a father can give his son honest advice, I also hope to do the same with you my son. Please do not be offended at what I have to say in the next couple of paragraphs. Just take it as constructive criticism. You have read enough about me to know that I have always spoken truth to power. I spoke the truth to President Kennedy, I spoke the truth the Lyndon Johnson and if I can speak the truth to these two great American presidents, I see no reason why I can’t speak the truth to you my son.
My son, I love you from the bottom of my heart. I see a lot of similarity between you and I. In some ways, you remind me of myself. You are intelligent, you are black, and you are a great orator. You are married to a lady with a beautiful heart who reminds me of my Coretta. You are also a likeable person. However, that seems to be were the similarity ends. In recent years, you have changed.
When you first came on the scene, the whole world was excited. They saw you as a breath of fresh air that would blow the wind of change on White House. Your slogan “Yes We Can” and “Change We Can Believe In” resonated around the world. You were the number one change agent around the world. Your infectious smile brought joys to millions around the world. Men cried like babies when they heard you speak and women fainted when they heard you speak. I would never forget seeing Oprah crying on a man shoulder as she heard you give your victory speech in Chicago. Unfortunately, that seems like a long while ago.
You are good at speeches, but it is hard to reconcile your speeches with your actions. In short you could sometimes come across someone who has: A HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE OF CREEDS AND AN ANEMIA OF DEEDS.
In addition, in trying to achieve some of your government’s goals, you appear to have adopted the principle of “the end justifies the means”, without giving serious consideration to the linkage between the ends and the means. Your administrations approach to American security can be summarized as follows: “As long as we achieve our ‘end’ to significantly keep America and the world secure, it doesn’t matter what type of ‘means’ we use. We hope to achieve our ‘end’ BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY. My son, you need to realize that ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can’t reach good ends through evil means.” You cannot achieve a moral end of keeping America secure by snooping on Americans and other people around the world; you cannot achieve a moral end of eradicating terrorism by using drones, which end up killing innocent women and children; you cannot achieve a moral end of maintaining America’s hegemony in the East by piling up military ammunitions in the East; you cannot achieve a moral end of ensuring economic prosperity for all by pandering to the merchants from Wall Street.
My son, I may be wrong, but sometimes, I get the impression that you like to use other people’s struggles as a photo opportunity. For instance, during your recent visit to South Africa, you went to Brother Nelson Mandela’s former cell at Robben Island and stared through the iron bars while the cameramen recorded you from behind. You seemed to position yourself in the cell in the same manner that you did when you visited the cell for the first time as a senator. I also find it quite ironic and hypocritical that you could look visibly moved when you were inside Mandela’s former cell, yet you have done nothing to fulfill your campaign promise to close Guantanamo Bay.
You have shown little interest in Africa. When you were elected as president, the whole continent rejoiced. Even though many Africans knew that you were elected president of the USA and not Africa, they still expected you to be more engaging. However, you remain aloof. It was only when the Chinese began to increase its influence in the continent that you decided to engage with Africa. During your last visit to the continent, you seemed to spend more time lecturing African leaders to embrace gay rights rather than helping them to deliberate on strategies to solve the continents many problems. I am sure these leaders must wonder why you are so brave and confident to tell them to accept gay rights, while you are afraid to tell leaders in the Arab world to do likewise. You may not know it, but you have become a laughing stock in Africa.
Another concern I have about you is that you try to be all things to all men. As a result, you often come across as indecisive. It is as if you try to gauge what is the popular opinion saying before making any decision. Sometimes as a leader, you have to listen to your own convictions. “On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right? There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.”
You may say, “But Martin Luther King, it is difficult effecting change as a politician compared to effecting change as a civil rights activist,” or “Things are tough here, look at the opposition from the Republicans,” or you may even suggest, “ I can’t make the change that I promised because I am a black man in a White House.” You can’t use these as excuses for inaction. After all President Abraham Lincoln whom you idolize was able to amend the US Constitution with the 13th Amendment in 1865 despite opposition from the Democrats; President Franklin Roosevelt instituted the New Deal between 1933 and 1936 despite opposition from conservative Republicans, Democrats and Wall Street; President Lyndon Johnson was able to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964 despite opposition from 18 senators from his own party. So you see where there's a will there's a way.
Before I finish my letter, I would like to tell you about an encounter that happened almost two thousand years ago somewhere in Israel. One day an influential man in Israel, I think his name was Nicodemus came to see a certain man late at night. When Nicodemus saw the man, he acknowledged that this man was from God. The man then responded to Nicodemus statement saying, "I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God." I also say to you my son that you must be BORN AGAIN. The Obama of 2013 is not the same Obama of 2007. I strongly urge you to heed to the words of Michael Jackson and take a long look in the mirror and make a change.
Even though I might come across as hard hitting in this letter, believe me, I tried to restrain myself. Brother Malcolm (who is copied in this letter) extends his greetings and says that he would be writing you a letter in the not too distant future.
Finally, when I started this letter I addressed you formally as “Dear President Obama”, however, I would now like to end this letter by addressing you informally as a son who I really really love.
Martin Luther King Jr.
cc Malcolm X
© Ahmed Sule 2013