Cornel West: Obama Doesn't Deserve To Be Sworn In On Martin Luther King Jr's Bible

While the rest of the media were gushing and fawning over the idea that Barack Obama was going to be sworn in on Martin Luther King Jr's bible during his second inauguration Monday, a surprising voice spoke about the hypocrisy involved.

On Tuesday, PBS's Tavis Smiley aired a discussion on poverty originally broadcast on C-SPAN Thursday wherein black philosopher and activist Cornel West spoke at length about why he "got upset" when he heard Obama was going to do this (video follows with transcript and commentary, photo courtesy UPI):

TAVIS SMILEY, HOST: I’m coming to you now because I heard you start to sound off with regard to your thoughts about what it means for Barack Hussein Obama to be sworn in to a second term as president on the King holiday. So you heard the applause in this auditorium when I suggested that in my view, and I think in your view, that Dr. King is the greatest American we’ve ever produced. So we know he looms large. We know the inauguration’s happening on the holiday. We know this is the first time that a president will be inaugurated with a King monument, memorial just down the street. His bible now has been brought into the equation. Let me just start by asking you for your opening thoughts on what, help me, which you do so well in what you teach, help me properly situate what’s about to happen on Monday vis-a-vis poverty in America.

CORNEL WEST: No, but first I just want to salute you, my brother. We’ve been in the trenches now for 20 years, sometimes misunderstood, sometimes demonized, sometimes ostracized. But we’re stronger than ever, and we’re still coming. We’re still going. It’s a blessing, my brother.

SMILEY: Appreciate it.

WEST: But no, when I got the news that my dear brother Barack Obama, President Obama was going to put his precious hand on Martin Luther King Jr.’s bible, I got upset. And I got upset because you don’t play with Martin Luther King Jr., and you don’t play with his people. And by his people what I mean is people of good conscience, fundamentally committed to peace and truth and justice, and especially the Black tradition that produced it.

All of the blood, sweat and tears that went into producing a Martin Luther King Jr. generated a brother of such high decency and dignity that you don’t use his prophetic fire as just a moment in presidential pageantry without understanding the challenge that he presents to all of those in power no matter of what color they are. No matter what color they are.

So the righteous indignation of a Martin Luther King Jr. becomes a moment in political calculation. And that makes my blood boil. Why? Because Martin Luther King Jr, he died on the three crimes against humanity he was wrestling with. Jim Crow, traumatizing, terrorizing, stigmatizing Black people. Lynching and so forth, not just "segregation" the way the press likes to talk about it.

Second: Carpet bombing in Vietnam killing innocent people, especially innocent children, those are war crimes Martin Luther King, Jr. was willing to die for. And thirdly, was poverty of all colors. He said it’s a crime against humanity for the richest nation in the history of the world to have so many of its precious children of all colors living in poverty and especially on the chocolate side of the nation, and on Indian reservations and Brown barrios and yellow slices and Black ghettos then — we call them hoods now, but ghettos then.

So I said to myself ain’t nothing wrong with putting your hand on the bible, even though the bible’s talking about justice, and Jesus is talking about the least of these, but when you put it on Martin’s bible, I said this is personal for me because this is the tradition that I come out of. This is the tradition that’s connected to my grandmother’s prayers and my grandfather’s sermons and my mother’s tears and my father’s smile. And it’s over against all of those in power who refuse to follow decent policies.


So I say to myself, “Brother Martin Luther King Jr., what would you say about the New Jim Crow? What would say about the Prison Industrial Complex? What would you say about the invisibility of so many of our prisoners, so many of our incarcerated, especially when 62 percent of them are there for soft drugs, but not one executive of a Wall Street bank gone to jail. Not one. Martin doesn’t like that. Not one wire-tapper, not one torturer under the Bush Administration, at all. Then what would you say about the drones being dropped on our precious brothers and sisters in Pakistan, and Somalia, and Yemen. Those are war crimes, just like war crimes in Vietnam. Martin Luther King Jr., what would you say?”

My voice hollers out, then don’t tame it with your hand on his bible, allow his prophetic voice to be heard. Martin, what would you say about the poverty in America now beginning with the children, and then the elderly, and then our working folk, and then all colors, not just here, around the world? Don’t hide and conceal his challenge. Don’t tame his prophetic fire.

So as much as I’m glad that Barack Obama won, I think that brother Mitt Romney would have been a catastrophe, and I understand brother Newt [Gingrich] told the truth of vampire capitalism, but that’s true for the system as a whole not just Mitt Romney in that regard.

But when Barack Obama attempts to use that rich tradition of Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, use the tradition of A. Philip Randolph, use the tradition of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, use the tradition of Tom Hayden and so many others struggling to produce that voice that pushed Martin in a direction that he did, I get upset.

People say, “Oh brother West, there’s Smiley and West hating Obama.” No, no. We’re just loving the tradition that produced Martin Luther King Jr., and we’re not going to allow it to be in any way sanitized, deodorized, and sterilized. We want the subversive power to be heard. That’s what made me think when he said he was going to put his hand on that bible.

Not surprisingly, although West made these comments last Thursday, they got little attention.

Obama's media wouldn't think of raining on his parade.

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.