I spent most of last week in Memphis, where I paid tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the 40th anniversary of his assassination. Many traveled from across the country, including John McCain who apologized for opposing the King Holiday bill.
Hillary Clinton was in Memphis to pay her respects and speak before the Church of God in Christ Pan African Leadership Summit at Mason Temple. She also took a tour of the National Civil Rights Museum.
Barack Obama was conspicuous by his absence. Frankly, I’m bothered that Obama didn’t bother to show up. Dr. King paid the ultimate sacrifice so that African Americans could get to the “mountaintop,” but Obama could not sacrifice a few hours of campaigning.
Instead, he was “spreading the message” in Indiana, which holds its primary on May 6. He phoned it in, saying:
I spoke at Dr. King's church on his birthday. I was with the King family then. I obviously gave a fairly fulsome speech on the state of race relations just two weeks ago. And I think it's important to spread the message that Dr. King's work is unfinished in places like Indiana and North Dakota.
Obama’s absence speaks volumes about ‘the state of race relations.” Shelby Steele, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of “A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Barack Obama and Why He Can’t Win,” told the Los Angeles Times:
Obama is going back to the larger strategy he used up until Rev. Wright, which is to downplay race.
He knows if there is this backdrop of black protest and anger, the white working-class voters he is trying to pull his way are going to peel away. His whole strategy is to relieve the anxiety by saying he is not interested in race, that he is transcending race.
Good luck with that. A recent New York Times poll found:
The survey suggests that Mr. Obama, Democrat of Illinois, may have been at something of a peak in February, propelled by a string of primary and caucus victories over Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, and that perceptions of him are settling down.
Mr. Obama's favorability rating among Democratic primary voters has dropped seven percentage points, to 62 percent, since the last Times/CBS News survey, in late February. While that figure is by any measure high, the decline came in a month during which he endured withering attacks from Mrs. Clinton and responded to reports that his former pastor had made politically inflammatory statements from his church's pulpit in Chicago.
African Americans remain Obama’s most loyal supporters. Blacks gave Obama a pass on skipping Tavis Smiley's annual conference. But he should not be given a free ride.
Indeed, Obama supporter Cornel West wrote:
I want to say that I'm deeply disappointed that my dear brother Barack Obama decided not to go pay tribute and lay his wreath for the great Martin Luther King, Jr. That brother Martin's profound love and deep sacrifice for black people, America and humanity is in no way reducible to political calculations, even for the campaign for presidency. That Martin Luther King Jr.'s deep commitment to unarmed truth and unconditional love can in no way be subject to strategies for access to political power. Hence, I have a very deep disagreement with my dear brother, Barack Obama -- in this case, commitment to truth is in tension with the quest for power.
If Obama doesn’t stand with blacks as we honor an American icon, who’s to say he’ll stand up for black Americans if he gets to the Oval Office?