The future of American democracy depends on our response to the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. And that legacy is not just about defending civil rights; it’s also about fighting to fix our rigged economy, which yields grotesque wealth inequality; our narcissistic culture, which unleashes obscene greed; our market-driven media, which thrives on xenophobic entertainment; and our militaristic prowess, which promotes hawkish policies around the world. The fundamental aim of black voters—and any voters with a deep moral concern for our public interest and common good—should be to put a smile on Martin’s face from the grave.
The conventional wisdom holds that, in the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton is the candidate who will win over African-American voters—that her rival, Bernie Sanders, performed well in Iowa and won New Hampshire on account of those states’ disproportionate whiteness, and that Clinton’s odds are better in the upcoming contests in South Carolina and Nevada, two highly diverse states.
But in fact, when it comes to advancing Dr. King’s legacy, a vote for Clinton not only falls far short of the mark; it prevents us from giving new life to King’s legacy. Instead, it is Sanders who has championed that legacy in word and in deed for 50 years. This election is not a mere campaign; it is a crusade to resurrect democracy—King-style—in our time. In 2016, Sanders is the one leading that crusade.
Clinton has touted the fact that, in 1962, she met King after seeing him speak, an experience she says allowed her to appreciate King’s “moral clarity.” Yet two years later, as a high schooler, Clinton campaigned vigorously for Barry Goldwater—a figure King called “morally indefensible” owing to his staunch opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And she attended the Republican convention in 1968! Meanwhile, at this same moment in history, Sanders was getting arrested for protesting segregation in Chicago and marching in Washington with none other than King itself. That’s real moral clarity.
Needless to say, some moral clarity set in as Clinton’s politics moved to the left in her college years. After graduating from law school, she joined the Children's Defense Fund as a staff attorney, working under the great King disciple, Marian Wright Edelman, with whom she struck up a friendship. Yet that relationship soured. This came after Hillary Clinton—in defending her husband’s punitive crime bill and its drastic escalation of the mass incarceration of poor people, especially black and brown people—referred callously to gang-related youth as “superpredators.” And it was Bill Clinton who signed a welfare reform bill that all but eliminated the safety net for poor women and children—a Machiavellian attempt to promote right-wing policies in order to “neutralize” the Republican Party. In protest, Peter Edelman, Marian’s courageous husband, resigned from his assistant secretary post at the Department of Health and Human Services.
The Clintons’ neoliberal economic policies—principally, the repeal of the Glass-Steagall banking legislation, apparently under the influence of Wall Street’s money—have also hurt King’s cause. The Clinton Machine—celebrated by the centrist wing of the Democratic Party, white and black—did produce economic growth. But it came at the expense of poor people (more hopeless and prison-bound) and working people (also decimated by the Clinton-sponsored North American Free Trade Agreement).
Bill apologized for the effects of his crime bill, after devastating thousands of black and poor lives. Will Hillary apologize for supporting the same measures?
It’s no accident that Goldman Sachs paid Hillary Clinton $675,000 for a mere three speeches in 2013, or that the firm has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to her campaigns or that, in total, it has paid her and her husband more than $150 million in speaking fees since 2001. This is the same Goldman Sachs that engaged in predatory lending of sub-prime mortgages that collapsed in 2008, disproportionately hurting black Americans.
These ties are far from being “old news” or an “artful smear,” as Hillary Clinton recently put it. Rather, they perfectly underscore how it is Sanders, not Clinton, who is building on King’s legacy. Sanders’ specific policies—in support of a $15 minimum wage, a massive federal jobs program with a living wage, free tuition for public college and universities, and Medicare for all—would undeniably lessen black social misery. In addition, he has specifically made the promise, at a Black Lives Matter meeting in Chicago, to significantly shrink mass incarceration and to prioritize fixing the broken criminal justice system, including eliminating all for-profit prisons.
Clinton has made similar promises. But how can we take them seriously when the Ready for Hillary PAC received more than $133,000 from lobbying firms that do work for the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America—two major private prison groups whose aim is to expand mass incarceration for profit? It was only after this fact was reported that Clinton pledged to stop accepting campaign donations from such groups. Similarly, without Sanders in the race to challenge her, there’s no question Clinton would otherwise be relatively silent about Wall Street.
The battle now raging in Black America over the Clinton-Sanders election is principally a battle between a declining neoliberal black political and chattering class still on the decaying Clinton bandwagon (and gravy train!) and an emerging populism among black poor, working and middle class people fed up with the Clinton establishment in the Democratic Party. It is easy to use one’s gender identity, as Clinton has, or racial identity, as the Congressional Black Caucus recently did in endorsing her, to hide one’s allegiance to the multi-cultural and multi-gendered Establishment. But a vote for Clinton forecloses the new day for all of us and keeps us captive to the trap of wealth inequality, greed (“everybody else is doing it”), corporate media propaganda and militarism abroad—all of which are detrimental to black America.
In the age of Barack Obama, this battle remained latent, with dissenting voices vilified. As a black president, Obama has tended to talk progressive but walk neoliberal in the face of outrageous right-wing opposition. Black child poverty has increased since 2008, with more than 45 percent of black children under age 6 living in poverty today. Sanders talks and walks populist, and he is committed to targeting child poverty. As president, he would be a more progressive than not just Clinton but also Obama—and that means better for black America.
Now, with Obama’s departure from the White House, we shall see clearly where black America stands in relation to King’s legacy. Will voters put a smile on Martin’s face? It’s clear how we can do it. King smiles at Sanders’ deep integrity and genuine conviction, while he weeps at the Clinton machine’s crass opportunism and the inequality and injustice it breeds.
Cornel West teaches philosophy at Union Theological Seminary.