Thursday, January 22, 2009


“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” Robert Francis Kennedy

I grew up in a small town in New England. The population during the mid 50’s was around 3,000 people. I graduated high school with a class of about 32. With the exception of a few non-white Americans, it was practically an all white community.

It was in 1955, attending Boston’s Berkley College of Music, I first met African American men and women.

During those years the name of Dr. Martin Luther King came up often. In the relationships I had with white people at school and in my community the name of Martin Luther King and his civil rights initiatives were frequently discussed, and always, at least it seemed, in derogatory association with Malcolm X and his black power movement, as if they both politically and ideologically were from the same cloth. The belief in the white community, in which I lived, was that Malcolm X and King were out to establish an all black America – a view, by the way, that I heard from many whites in relationship to Barack Obama; that there was no basis for civil rights legislation, because in their mind in the northeast there was no racism, or so they thought, even though there was in fact de facto racism, of which they never seemed to be cognizant. The African Americans who I knew and worked with as a musician never gave me an indication of any interest in black power, I, nevertheless, was still lead by the views of my white associations.

In the late 50’s and early 60’s I traveled as a musician throughout the Deep South. Much to my chagrin I was appalled at not only the poverty, but also the treatment and segregation practices that I witnessed toward African American men, women and children. I was embarrassed that I could be lead by the subliminal racist views of others in such a way as to believe that what I was witnessing, what was in the view of some northerners not fact. If I had not had this experience, the profoundness and propinquity of the celebration of MLK’s life to, and the inauguration of our first African American President, most likely would not be so meaningful to me. It was surreally spiritual, in many ways, at least to me.

Throughout the 60’s to 1975 the United States was involved in an undeclared War. A war waged, seemingly, at the whim of the President of the United States and its military machine. It was an unacceptable use of our military, many lives were lost, there were many atrocities on all sides and by all sides of the conflict, and it was a war that tore our country apart with unimaginable polarization. We had a raging war in Vietnam and an intense war at home; both out of control. Our government was not listening nor, as a result, towards the end of the war, complying with the wishes of its people. A revolution, another civil war, was on our doorsteps, which I believe would have occurred if the war had not ended.

There were many voices speaking for human decency and civil rights, and many voices in opposition to the Vietnam War. Two of the most prominent and eloquent of those voices were Martin Luther King and Robert Francis Kennedy.

Their messages are as relative and their words just as worthy today as they were then.

Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech of August 28, 1963 needs no further explanation of his pursuit on civil rights, or of his pursuit for human dignity. Anyone who has heard or read that speech certainly knows that it speaks for itself. And it is important to understand that his pursuit was not just in the cause of African Americans, but for all people: non-white and white alike.

MLK’s “Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence” speech of April 4, 1967 is less known, but is just as powerful. As Martin Luther King expressed in that speech there is a connection between the have-not’s – those in poverty and of middle income -- and those who have money and power, and the war that people with money and power wage; they cannot be separated. Dr. King also said, “This [the brotherhood of man] is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I'm speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this One? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?”

I was 30 years old when on April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. At the time I understood, at some level, the meaning of his loss. However, it was not until I became an older man, not until Tuesday, January 20, 2009 did I authentically understand in the most profound sense what greatness Martin Luther King achieved. What MLK gave his life for is what came to fruition with the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama.

Many have said that I voted for Barack Obama because he was black.

First, they fail to see that the man is both black and white, born of a white mother and a black father, in which at one time in my life that was considered to be worse than being black. I can very vividly remember the derogatory name-calling of “Half Breed,” and if it were the other way around and one so happened to be white and poor, or white and black they were called “White Trash.” (and, also, by the way, both the so-called “Half Breed,” and “White Trash” seemed to be accepted in the black communities, but not in white communities) Today, unfortunately, those words are still used by some. So, we as a people have not quite reached the mountain top, but it is clearly in view despite the cloudy overcast.

Second, I voted for Barack Obama because of his moral vision, having the same moral vision as Robert Francis Kennedy. RFK’s moral vision was clearly expressed on April 4, 1968 in his “Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr,” and in his speech of March 18, 1968, “Recapturing America’s Moral Vision.”

There are many similarities between the views and political goals of Robert Kennedy and Barack Obama. The same qualities of greatness are apparent in each of them: vision, passion, discipline, persistence, empathy and caring, and the art of communication. They both embraced an America that offers hope and the promise of a better future to America and the world; appealed to the younger generation; possessed qualities that inspire others; advocated transparency and candor within government; and their equally passionate concern, and intended pursuit, for civil rights and human dignity for all. They both embrace the new frontier vision of John Kennedy as expressed in his American University commencement speech of June 10, 1963 “… defending the frontiers of freedom, but in pursuing the paths of peace.” -- RFK more so explicitly because of his direct legacy to JFK; Barack H Obama expressed it more implicitly.

As with James Carroll, as he states it in his recent article in the Boston Globe, I am not an optimist either: “Not that Obama makes me an optimist - one who looks at the evidence and concludes about the future that things are getting better. Indeed, the evidence - from the economy to Gaza - suggests the opposite. But Obama has defined himself by hope, not optimism, and that is different. Hope sees the evidence, and something more. The catastrophes that define the public agenda, and the new president's challenges, can themselves be taken as opportunities. Obama's gifts are impressive, but his greatest asset as he stands before the American people tomorrow is what we are offering to him - a readiness to believe again in the greatness of our nation.” However, I do have hope in America and faith that one day we will reach the summit of Martin Luther King’s dream, as ostensibly do other countries see in America a great hope for their future. I firmly believe: Yes We Can!

Here you can see where Barack Obama’s sensibilities lie: David Leonhardt, writing in an article titled Obamanomics, published on August 20, 2008, in the New York Times magazine, spoke about a conversation he had with Barack Obama during which he referred to as one of Robert F. Kennedy’s “most beautiful of his speeches”: “Two things, he [Barack Obama] said, as we were standing outside the first-class bathroom. ‘One, just because I think it really captures where I was going with the whole issue of balancing market sensibilities with moral sentiment. One of my favorite quotes is — you know that famous Robert F. Kennedy quote about the measure of our G.D.P.?’”

David Leonhardt said that he did not. So here is what the GNP meant to Robert F. Kennedy:

"Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product ... if we should judge America by that - counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.”

"Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."

Thomas Whalen, Boston University Professor of American History and Social Change, metaphorically and analytically described the comparison between what he envisions in an Obama presidency and that of any of his predecessors: “it’s like comparing Lawrence Welk to Miles Davis.”

In conclusion, Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., expresses what this particular inauguration meant to me, personally, and I believe for so many others: “Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”

This I believe: Barack Obama embraced Robert Kennedy as one of those who look at things the way they are, and ask why, and has dreamed of things that never were, and has asked why not.”

In my life it seems there is always a “time and season for all things.” I believe that the time and season has arrived for America.