What’s in a Name? Part 2

Ta-Nehisi Coates responds to the ‘no MLK’ complaint

As Katia mentioned last night, black commentators like Cornel West and Julianne Malveaux took Barack Obama to task for not paying more tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. on the 45th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech.

The two academics, West and Malveaux, guested on Tavis Smiley’s PBS show (the New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh profiled Smiley in early August), and were asked whether or not they thought Obama delivered:

Malveaux responded, “Not at all. My heart’s broken, actually. I hoped to hear more about King… That he could not mention the name of Martin Luther King Jr., that he was reduced to some preacher from Georgia, was a disappointment.”

Cornel West said: “It’s clear that when you run from history, run from memory, it’s hard to be empowered to change history to create a better future and to build on memory so that this becomes a great memory itself in the future.”

A few minutes later, Malveaux added: “Reverend [Jesse] Jackson has said there’s a baton that has been passed from Dr. King to Reverend Jackson to Barack Obama. … But I think the brother dropped the historical baton, even if he carried the policy baton.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, at the Atlantic, rightly takes them to task for failing to look past the “kissing of the ring” outlook. Here’s his defense of the light MLK reference in Obama’s speech, which I think is very well articulated:

Half the reason for having John Lewis, for having the film of MLK, for having MLK’s kids is so that Obama is free to focus on winning the election. I don’t think you do that by making the speech a paean to MLK—God bless him. How many votes is that going to get you? When you’re on the battlefield, you don’t pause put down your sword and shield to praise God for allowing you the privilege of being there. Do that after the battle’s won.

Robert Caro’s excellent New York Times op-ed on Wednesday argued (as others have) that if Thursday night’s moment had its roots in any historic speech, it was “the one that made Martin Luther King cry”—Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 address to Congress introducing a voting rights act. And in a different take on Coates’s thought, Caro suggested that the documentation of the historic moment occurs not on the strength of rhetorical references, as West and Malveaux would have it, but on the rather unassailable strength of its own unfolding.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.