Yes, we have heard all the reasons why some believe President Obama should not travel to Ferguson, Missouri. We could not disagree more. This President was elected with the historic distinction of being the first African-American to serve in the Oval Office. His election represented a new chapter in a liberation struggle that is incomplete. While we celebrated his blackness on the night of his improbable victory, we also elected a President, a commander-in-chief, our national leader. It is during times of great national distress that we expect our President to speak with the full authority of his office and to be present in the midst of national suffering. African-Americans have been suffering under the weight of police misconduct and brutality and we believe President Obama has a moral obligation to not just express his empathy and angst, but to show leadership in a crisis.
The most pronounced argument that has been made against President Obama traveling to Ferguson is that it would cause distress for the White House as his detractors would claim he was playing the race card, or worse, showing sympathy for Blacks. So what. This President is now in his second term, after November he truly becomes a lame duck and we know the deeply racist underpinnings of much of the criticism leveled against him. In other words, his traveling to Ferguson does not change one iota the venom he will be subjected to for the duration of his term in office. At some point this President must cast away those fears and realize that he is in a moment of great moral crisis in our nation. It is during moments such as this that we expect our Presidents to lead. Barack Obama is the President of the United States and has the authority to be present whenever and wherever.
Mr. President, Ferguson is calling.
Yes, there are other places where Black men have been killed by the police. Ferguson, however, has become the flashpoint, the symbolic representation of police brutality and indifference for the lives of Black people. It has become what Birmingham became to the civil rights movement after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and murder of four Black girls in that church. Ferguson has become a rallying cry for the pent up anger, hurt and resentment of decades of police violence against Black people.
This President cannot on one hand launch an initiative tagged “My Brother’s Keeper” and then sit in the White House as his brothers cry out for help. It is not enough to express empathy; not enough to send the Attorney General. America needs to see its President on the streets of Ferguson. They need to hear their President speak unapologetically about the history of racism in America and why Ferguson is not an anomaly but the latest chapter in the American saga. The world needs to see the first African-American President, the leader of the “free world” standing behind the presidential seal and affirming the human rights of Black men. Our detractors around the world need to see our President, our Black President speak forcefully on the constitutional rights of African-Americans. Black people in America need to see the full weight of the federal government take on this menace of police violence and be assured that ‘state’s right’ to kill is unacceptable.
When Lyndon Johnson determined that poverty was a plague on America, he referenced Appalachia and traveled to communities of poor whites. Johnson understood the power of his office and cared less whether the symbolic representation of his policy was white and southern. LBJ, a Dixiecrat, also declared boldly before Congress that “we shall overcome” knowing full well the political penalty he would pay. He understood that his moral duty as President compelled him to ignore political considerations and history was calling upon him to do the right thing. George W. Bush traveled to Africa and acknowledged the continued legacy in the United States of the enslavement of Africans during a trip to Goree Island, Senegal. Yes, Johnson and Bush are white but LBJ, W and Barack are all Presidents. Those same forces of history, of legacy, that moved Johnson and Bush are now weighing upon this historic presidency.
By not traveling to Ferguson this President is playing into the hands of those who have worked to diminish his presidency. He cannot equivocate and he cannot worry about the mid-term election. The America that exists today will continue to exist after November albeit with a different countenance if this President rises to the occasion. President Obama has little effective time left in office. It would be a tragic miscalculation to be a spectator when his community, his nation needs to see him and hear him speak decisively on why America cannot afford Fergusons if we are to be the Republic we claim.