Against Cornell West / For Barack Hussein Obama: MLK’s Bible, the Inauguration and the Left

I wonder if Cornell West ever has second thoughts.

At a “Poverty in America” forum held at George Washington University on January 17th, West forcefully criticized Barack Obama for taking his oath of office at his second inauguration on Martin King Jr.’s bible. See below for a clip of West’s remarks.

West was sure and authoritative, as a self appointed spokesman for the oppressed, in the name of the oppressed, and their great leader, Martin Luther King Jr.:

“You don’t play with Martin Luther King, Jr. and you don’t play with his people. By his people, I mean people of good conscience, fundamentally good people committed to peace and truth and justice, especially the Black tradition that produced it.

All of the blood, sweat and tears that went into producing a Martin Luther King, Jr. generated a brother of such high decency and dignity that you don’t use his prophetic fire for a moment of presidential pageantry without understanding the challenge he represents to all of those in power regardless of what color they are.

The righteous indignation of a Martin Luther King, Jr. becomes a moment of political calculation. And that makes my blood boil. Why? Because Martin Luther King, Jr. died…he died…for the three crimes against humanity that he was wrestling with. Jim Crow, traumatizing, terrorizing, stigmatizing Black people. Lynching, not just ‘segregation’ as the press likes to talk about.

Second: Carpet bombing in Vietnam killing innocent people, especially innocent children, those are war crimes that Martin Luther King , Jr. was willing to die for. And thirdly, was poverty of all colors, he said it is a crime against humanity for the richest nation in the world to have so many of it’s precious children of all colors living in poverty and especially on the chocolate side of the nation, and on Indian reservations and Brown barrios and yellow slices and Black ghettos — we call them hoods now, but ghettos then.”

In great fury, West concluded to enthusiastic applause:

“When Barack Obama attempts to use that rich tradition of Frederick Douglas and Ida B. Wells-Barnett? Use the tradition of A. Phillip Randolph? Use the tradition of Rabbi Joshua Heschel? Use the tradition of Tom Hayden and so many others struggling to produce that voice that pushed Martin in the direction that it did? I get upset.”

Other speakers on the panel included Newt Gingrich and Jeffrey Sachs. Travis Smiley moderated. It must have been a great show, typical of a West performance.

I saw the video before the inauguration and Obama’s second inaugural address, tipped off by an approving Facebook friend. I thought immediately that the performance was appalling, a clear example of what I find most problematic in political life. West confuses his interpretation of the King legacy with the truth. He and his approving audience hold one interpretation. Surely, there are others. But the vehemence of West’s conclusion, his absolute assurance that he holds the truth, doesn’t allow for this.

I happen to disagree with West’s reading of King, and I was moved by the fact that Obama took his oath on King’s and Lincoln’s bibles. I see great powerful symbolism in this, a political leader commits himself to the legacy of the predecessor he most admires, and he commits himself to the legacy of the social movement leader he most admires, Martin Luther King Jr., who pushed Lincoln’s legacy most forcefully in the direction of civil rights and social justice. I was outraged that West, in effect, dismissed this reading, which I think is at least as powerful as his. But generally because I judge West’s theatrics to be a playful sideshow, I didn’t feel compelled to write about it. I listen to and read West regularly, often disagree. So it goes.

Yet now, after observing and thinking deliberately about inauguration, and Obama’s address, I feel compelled to speak up, because an important issue is involved, concerning the relationship between official power and the power of criticism, between the power of the state and the power of social movements, between Obama and his critics on the left.

It turns out that Obama gave a full-throated progressive speech. He pushed forward his long term project of moving the center left, of shifting political commonsense. He used the power of the presidential bully pulpit at the event in which that pulpit it most powerful. He used a supreme opportunity, the high holiday of America’s civil religion, to identify himself and the American public with the legacy of King and the civil rights movement, linking that legacy with the women and gay rights movements,

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”

Obama also spoke precisely against an over militarized state: “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.” And he centered himself and the nation on the issue of equality, opening with reflections on the Declaration of Independence and going on later asserting:

“We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.  We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

Obama, in effect, spoke to the legacies of King according to West, doing so as the significant political leader, statesman, that he is. Yet, perhaps West or the critical reader will note that the words are not always followed by deeds. I agree, but by uttering the words Obama sets clear and identifiable grounds for critical judgment of state action. He, in fact, is legitimating the criticism.

Political leaders, social movement leaders and public intellectuals play different roles. All are necessary. I wonder why so many on the left don’t get this. Perhaps Brother Cornell, as he might have me call him, is having second thoughts.

I hope so because I think that Obama is a great, though far from perfect, president, who promises much more, and that it should be the role of his critics to push him to do so. Talk of the middle class should be accompanied by clearly addressing the problems of poverty in America. Transforming American foreign policy, recognizing the normative and practical limits of military force (to be examined in detail in a future “in depth” post), needs to include a public examination of drone warfare, setting clear limits. The beautiful and challenging words of the inaugural address on climate change have to be followed my meaningful legislation and changes in policy.

My hope for the left: to paraphrase the great union leader Joe Hill (“don’t mourn organize”): don’t perform, seriously criticize and demonstrate. In this way, as Obama pushes the center left, which he clearly did in his first term and in his second inaugural address, he can be pushed further.

By the way, this is how I understand the success of the activism of Occupy Wall Street, and spectacularly the success of LGBT movement in the first term, culminating in the powerful words in the inaugural address:

“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law  –- (applause) — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.  (Applause.)”

Obama wouldn’t have said this, he wouldn’t have understood it, without a powerful social movement pushing him. With this in mind, in tomorrow’s post, we will publish a report on the protests in Washington at the time of the inauguration.

  • David Peppas


    I also found West’s criticism problematic. But I would say
    that he’s being intentionally provocative, and not gratuitously so. Remember he
    starts off from an emotional premise, and then develops it from there. He said
    he was upset by the use of the MLK bible. I see no reason to doubt that he was genuinely upset. Did you ever consider that his provocative presentation and defensive stance, which you seem
    to be dismissing as theatrics, are genuine? Much of his academic presentation
    style is obviously influenced by his faith and Southern upbringing—for example
    referring to people he’s debating with as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. I find this wonderful and I am perplexed by why it seems to bother you. This background is also undoubtedly related to
    his feeling of anger around the use of the MLK bible in the inaugural ceremony—he
    actually stated this.

    I think the problems with his criticism of the use of the MLK bible are self-evident so I won’t go into that. But a more interesting question might ask instead; what might be useful about such a provocative stance? To me it seems that West is reminding folks on the ‘left’—such as you and
    myself— not to let our being enamored with Obama make us complacent or blind us.
    He’s trying to use his position as a public intellectual to wake up progressives and allow them to see problems they might not overlook under a conservative president. And West named many of
    these problems, wire tapping, drone strikes, poverty ect. Obama is a highly competent politician,
    who can take, and I’m sure appreciates, such criticism.


    David Peppas

  • susanai

    West is such a ‘precious’ guy. He annoys me to hell and back.

  • Jeffrey Goldfarb

    I am sorry. I see and hear West and I see a professional performer, doing an act. Of course, he may be sincere, as you believe. But there is still a result that you don’t mention. He makes people cynical about a political leader. Sure he acknowledges that Romney would be much worse, but he doesn’t recognize that many of the left, center and perhaps even the right see as a remarkable progression from MLK to Obama, symbolically and practically. I didn’t write anything about West’s performance after Obama delivered his Inaugural Address. That’s key. He actually addressed cogently and in some ways more expansively the issues that West raised. Thus, my stance: does he leading question. Does he ever have second thoughts?

  • David Peppas

    Brother Jeffrey,

    Don’t be sorry. Your admission that you see a professional performer doing an act reveals that you might be the one generating cynicism here. I’m one of those people that is blown away by Obama’s overall performance and inaugural address-in that I am surprised by what I see as so much good. However, I do not find West’s on going criticism of the Obama administration as to generate cynicism as you do. I in fact see him as performing the role of a public intellectual quite well. Public intellectuals, as you know are often provocateurs, think Zizek, Baudrillard, Butler or Hitchens. You seem to be dismissing West on this quality alone when you say he is a “professional performer, doing an act”. I see the role of the public intellectual as a highly important role. As for him generating cynicism about a political leader I just don’t see it. Whether you agree with him or not he is among the most cheerful of ‘scientists’.

    In terms of “second thoughts” West has been highly critical of Obama’s actions for the past four years concerning a number of things, not so much Obama’s words. His criticism has to do with Obama’s words not matching his actions. Given this the content of Obama’s inaugural speech really doesn’t apply here-at least at this point.



  • Pat

    Mr. West is getting older, he is like an athlete who doesn’t want to get out of the game, there are no more groupies, the news media is not asking him “what do you think” because very few people care anymore. He certainly has the right to criticize the President; no one would argue that point. Mr. West obviously feels a personal connection to Dr. King’s bible and he is not alone. But that does not give him the right to dictate how it’s used or that his views supersede millions of others that feel that same connection to what Dr. King stood for. Mr. West’s interpretation of the bible or of Dr. King is not definitive. Does he not think that the President understands the importance of Dr. King and his re-election as President?

    Unfortunately this is not the first time he has aligned himself with Newt Gingrich and the far right, one only needs to read “Race Matters”, in which Mr. West blames black culture rather than economic disparity as the source of urban plight. We’ve heard this argument before, he sounds a little like Mitt Rommey and his 47% remarks. It would serve Mr. West to look at himself through the eyes of Samuel Jackson’s Stephen in Django to get a perspective of who he has become. Mr. West like Travis Smiley, Michael Steele, Alan Keys and the like will not make the history books, our children and grandchildren will never know their names, they will be forgotten tomorrow. The President however, has made history and will be remembered as long as America stands.

  • Richard

    “Unfortunately this not the first time he has aligned himself with Newt Gingrich and the far right…”

    Huh? You can’t be serious. West may be many things, but he has never aligned himself with the far right. In fact, in the debate mentioned above, he was a constant and vocal critic of Gingrich throughout. And I seriously doubt you’ve read “Race Matters” if the message you received from it was that West blames black culture rather than economic disparity (and, if you did actually read it, I seriously doubt your comprehension of said material)> And did you really just compare one of the foremost scholars of African-American intellectual history to the Uncle Tom character in Django Unchained? Shameful. I know this is supposed to be a website encouraging civil debate, but my mind is reeling from the outright stupidity of your post.

  • Jeffrey Goldfarb

    I think the connection between Gingrich and West, as Richard strongly argues, is not substantive. Yet, they do connect as entertainers, of the right and the left, respectively, sharing a stage. My problem is that the entertainment gets in the way of the analysis. And the posing often leads to strange conclusions, such as Obama has no right to take the oath of office on Martin Luther King Jr.’s bible. Attack doesn’t refute this fundamental observation.