A little over 40 years ago Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech at the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, Ga. On that sunny day in August, King spoke of the tremendous strides that had been made in the advancement of African-American civil rights since the organization’s inception in 1957. Yet, knowing that great hurdles remained, both in realizing the goals of the civil rights movement and in the advancement of American public life in general, King posed to his audience the daunting question of “where do we go from here?”
It is a question that is as pertinent today as it was in 1967, and, as we are now in the midst of the most hotly contested presidential primary season in memory, one that our prospective nominees should be answering. Thus, for some it is ironic that while Senator Barack Obama-a candidate who at times seems to self-consciously style himself off of King-carries on King’s rhetorical message of a more progressive society built upon just power, Obama has not plunged into the kind of policy details that some of his rivals in the Democratic field have.
This argument misses both the fundamental issue facing the future of the country, as well as the reality of the Illinois senator’s platform. The nuance of Obama’s proposed programs has been articulated and is always available online, as is detailed policy information for each of the other candidates. While more dialogue on the issues from the Obama camp would certainly be welcome, the power of his voice as an instrument of unity and cooperation cannot be overlooked. The past eight years have demonstrated the dangers of a polarizing administration that has been unable to inspire and sustain broad domestic support and international confidence during difficult times. The next administration will require both a sound policy platform and the ability to affect compromise within congress in order to pass its agenda.
The resounding message of the primary season has been the notion of bringing “change” to Washington. Such promises have always been crushed flat trying to negotiate beltway traffic. Rather, what is needed is a rearticulated sense of national self-respect and humble confidence in the future. Hope in America must be born again, and from it will stem legislation that supports education, healthcare, scientific research and development, as well as firm and far sighted foreign and economic policies.
Martin Luther King’s message still resonates for, “… now more than ever before, America is challenged to realize its dream, for the shape of the world today does not permit our nation the luxury of an anemic democracy.” Great leadership should include, but must transcend policy prescriptions and hypothetical programs. It must inspire and sustain faith in the broader ends that public policy is supposedly working towards. That is the type of leadership that defines Roosevelts, Churchills and Kings. It is the type of leadership that achieves transformational success in difficult days.