For many, the week leading up to the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a walk down the memory lane.
Hordes of reporters talked to ministers, civil rights leaders, sanitation workers and others about what it was like to march with Dr. King, and the events surrounding his last hours were like.
But for Martin Luther King III, he stayed on message: remembering April 4 was about recommitment to the causes his father fought for.
That point seemed to be in conflict during the five days I was in Memphis. I guess because remembering all of King's work is pretty easy compared to forging your own path.
During the last year of his life, King was focused on two primary issues: poverty and the war in Vietnam.
According to the latest CNN/Opinion Research poll, the top two issues today are the economy and the war in Iraq. Different times, but the issues remain the same...
As I talked throughout the day on CNN on Friday – with barely a voice due to allergies – I wanted our focus to remain on present day, and not get caught in the trap of the past. As a student of history, I appreciate the past because it sets us up for the present. But when we stay there, that's when we have problems.
There were so many people to commemorate the day, including Clarence B. Jones, King's personal attorney; Pastor Paula White; the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson Sr.; Rev. C.T. Vivian, one of the bravest men during the Civil Rights Movement; Rev. Benjamin Hooks; Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker; and of course, presidential candidates, Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
Absent was Sen. Barack Obama.
And let me share a few words on that.
As I stood in the space that used to occupy Room 307 of the Lorraine Motel – now a part of the National Civil Rights Museum – and I looked across the crowd that stood in the rain and wind Friday, I tried to reconcile Obama not being there, and instead, staying in Indiana. My thoughts went back to my post about the Tavis Smiley affair, and the reality is that both are different.
I thought Obama should have been in Memphis because the nation's attention was focused on that day, and not Indiana, where he was. Had Obama been there he could have used the opportunity to further present himself in the image of King, someone who wasn't willing to shy away from the tough fights and stay focused on his work in the pulpit. To have Obama stand on that balcony would have meant that they may have killed the dreamer, but a potential Obama presidency represented the continuing of that dream. Had Obama been there he could have used the moment to make plain to America that King was not just a black man fighting for black rights, but someone who ended up freeing white Americans from their own racial prisons and forced them to truly embrace the U.S. Constitution they so dearly loved. Had Obama been there he could have met with the 18 black sanitation workers who are still on the job in Memphis because they don't have any city pensions. Yes, those men must still work because the racism in 1968 continues to affect their lives in 2008.
I've seen the talking points distributed by his campaign, suggesting that he was in Indiana because King's vision resonated across the nation. True, very true. But images have power, and the image of Obama on that balcony, speaking to the nation, would have meant more than him speaking in Indiana.
This, folks, was a missed opportunity by Obama.
– Roland S. Martin, CNN Contributor
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