The next rung upward on the civil rights ladder

01/29/2013 7:12 PM

05/16/2014 8:51 PM

Several significant things converge Monday as President Barack Obama puts his hand on two Bibles and takes the oath of office.

First, these aren’t just any Bibles. One belonged to President Abraham Lincoln, who led the nation in its bloodiest war, culminating in the 13th Amendment freeing all slaves.

The second Bible belonged to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who led the passive resistance struggle for civil rights. Obama, the nation’s first black president, owes his 2008 election and re-election last year to King’s valiant work to gain voting rights for all Americans.

Without the black and Latino ballots cast, the Obamas wouldn’t be the first family. Also unforgettable, today the nation commemorates what would’ve been King’s 84th birthday if a gunman hadn’t assassinated him on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.

The confluence of these events prompted me to find two King quotes, which could help guide Obama in his second term. The first is on progress:

“Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

That’s from King’s April 16, 1963, “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” That was nearly 50 years ago as was King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Obama, like King, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The president in his second term has to be just as committed as King was to get the country to rebuild the nation’s largest cities. They’ve suffered decades of disinvestment and decay.

Cities would benefit from the kind of Green Impact Zone initiative that U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver nudged Obama into doing in Kansas City. But instead of just one here, there should be at least a half-dozen spread out in long-neglected areas where mostly blacks, Latino and poor whites live.

Economic development must be a key rung on the 21st-century civil rights ladder helping people in despair climb from a generational hole of poverty and inequality. Education has to be next rung on the civil rights ladder so the growing minority population and the nation remain globally competitive. More federal money and training have to be injected into urban schools.

Also for progress, Obama must push for laws to reduce global warming. We’ll have no civil rights if the planet dies.

For all Americans, the Obama administration must spend the next four years encouraging people to reduce their girth and improve their health. Prematurely dead people don’t have to worry about civil rights.

Here’s the second quote from King that matters. Keep in mind that as Obama takes the oath, first lady Michelle Obama will be holding the Bibles that had belonged to two great Americans — both assassinated by gun violence. We have not outgrown our bloody past:

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

That’s from King’s 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Obama’s inauguration also happens amid a national outcry after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

The gun problem keeps recurring with mass shootings at shopping malls, in workplaces and in movie theaters nationwide. Fortunately the president finally is trying to do something about gun violence.

Obama has announced plans to address the problem. But the bigger issue is getting people to drop the fear they have for others. The solution of unity, peace and love is the obvious way forward.

It’s what Lincoln and King both gave their lives for.

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