Obama embodies the future King dreamt about


ANALYSIS: Barack Obama is no Martin Luther King jnr. But his success marks a significant victory over prejudice, writes Bryan Mukandi 

A ARON McGRUDER's The Boondocks is an animated TV series which takes a satirical look at American culture and race relations from the perspective of an African-American family. In a controversial episode titled Return of the King, Martin Luther King Jr does not die after the assassination attempt in Memphis, but falls into a long coma. He then wakes up in modern-day America and is disgusted by what he sees.

Towards the end of the episode Dr King gives an angry speech. He expresses his frustration, anger and disappointment at what America as a whole, and "black America" in particular, have become. An older, disillusioned King asks his audience: "Is this it? This is what I got all those ass-whoopings for? . . . I've seen what's around the corner; I've seen what's over the horizon . . . And no, I won't get there with you. I'm going to Canada!"

I understand the frustration that drove McGruder to create Return of the King. But I listened to, and watched, Barack Obama deliver his acceptance speech on the 45th anniversary of King's I Have A Dream speech.

Many people of different races, gender and age were equally struck by the event. A packed football stadium applauded as, for the first time ever, a black man accepted a major party's nomination as its presidential candidate. I watched Obama captivate the audience with his vision for America. And though I cannot say for certain what the late preacher would have made of it all, I am pretty sure he would have been pleased.

At a time when black people in America were second-class citizens King had the courage to stand with a growing grassroots movement and be its face and its leader. While people like Malcolm X understandably called for the separation of the races and a more aggressive struggle to that end, King had the wisdom and foresight to link black America's future with that of the rest of the country. He saw himself and his flock as Americans first and, as such, heirs to the same American dream that was available to white Americans.

"Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred," he urged 45 years ago. In the same speech, King went on to say: "The marvellous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realise that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realise that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone."

It was fitting that towards the end of his own speech Obama quoted King's. In fact, the ghost of Martin Luther King, and the memory of I Have A Dream, hovered over Obama's address. As he brought the proceedings to a close, he gave life to King's words, even if only fleetingly: "We cannot walk alone," the preacher cried. "And, as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back."

"America, we cannot turn back . . . not with so much work to be done; not with so many children to educate, and so many veterans to care for; not with an economy to fix, and cities to rebuild, and farms to save; not with so many families to protect and so many lives to mend," said the candidate.

Barack Obama is a politician. He is no Martin Luther King Jr, nor is he Marcus Garvey, Moses or the Messiah. He is not some magic cure for all of America's race problems, or even for the ills that plague that country's black community. Be that as it may, he embodies, in part, the future that King dreamt of and shared with the world.

Obama's success shows the kind of progress the United States has made in half a century. There are those who have questioned whether or not he is black enough, while others fear that he is "too black". Some have suggested that he has only achieved his success because of his race, yet others say that he has succeeded in spite of it. None of these things really matter. What ultimately matters is that people have made a little progress and the world today is a little less prejudiced than it was 50 years ago.

Hopefully this progress has not come too late. In the speech he gave on the eve of his assassination, Dr King stated prophetically: "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life . . . But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!"

Were he alive today, I think the "Promised Land" King would have in mind would be something even more significant than having a black president. I cannot see the man who confronted the president who signed the Civil Rights Bill over his invasion of Vietnam, or the black leader who spoke out against the plight of poor white people - I cannot see him stopping there. He would probably demand even more. Were McGruder's fantasy real, were King to come out of a coma today, I doubt he would move to Canada, but he would probably still urge us all to work towards the real challenges of our time - persistent inequality, poverty, climate change, arrogance and greed. In short, the same hardness of heart that he confronted a generation ago.

"We cannot turn back," he might plead. "Not with so much work to be done."

• Vincent Browne is on leave