Obama March on Washington SpeechPresident Obama’s March on Washington speech this week wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t so great either.
When you’re the first black president giving a speech on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” address, you have a tough act to follow.
It was impossible for Obama, despite his stellar oratory skills, to rival, much less surpass Dr. King’s 1963 sermon. But that should not have been the goal, and that is beside the point, in any case.
But for a second-term president hoping to cement his legacy, Obama squandered a unique opportunity to demonstrate some leadership on civil rights, to articulate King’s message and honestly assess how far we have fallen short, and to identify those who stand in the way of justice and equality. In other words, it was a symbolic, commemorative speech that any dignitary or guest speaker could have given and usually gives at King celebrations—but a visionary speech it was not.
The president told someone that giving this speech on the anniversary of the greatest speech ever was “like following Jesus.” And he was right. To his credit, Obama tamped down expectations. In a White House interview, Tom Joyner asked the president whether his speech was ready.
“Not quite yet. Still working on it. But let me just say for the record right now, it won’t be as good as the speech 50 years ago,” Obama said. “Because when you are talking about Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington, you’re talking about one of the maybe five greatest speeches in American history. And the words that he spoke at that particular moment, with so much at stake, and the way in which he captured the hopes and dreams of an entire generation I think is unmatched.”
Obama said he would use the event to “celebrate the accomplishments of all of those folks whose shoulders we stand on and then remind people that the work is still out there for us to do” and honor not only King’s speech but those ordinary people who went to hear him speak.
“We honor them not by giving another speech ourselves — because it won’t be as good — but instead by just doing the day-to-day work to make sure this is a more equal and more just society,” Obama added.
True, words without action mean little. But leaders inspire by what they say to others, what they actually do, and what they mobilize others to do. And when you are the president, you have a 4- or 8-year contract to lead the nation—in Obama’s case, the latter— with ownership rights to the largest bully pulpit imaginable. That gives you the right, if not the duty, to utilize it.
The missed opportunities are hidden in the words of King himself.
In his 1963 oration, King said those who wrote the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence signed a promissory note that all people would be guaranteed unalienable rights—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned,” King declared. “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
There was a strong sense of urgency in King’s words—the “urgency of the moment” as he called it—as he articulated a need for action that could not wait, a need to make the promises of democracy real, and to chart a course to racial justice. “We have also come to this hallowed ground to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” King warned.
There was no idealistic dreamer to be found here.
Further, Dr. King told the crowd that it would be fatal for America to overlook what was happening at the time, that there would be no peace until blacks were granted their rights, and continued revolts until justice emerged. “Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off some steam and will now be content will have a rude a wakening if the nation returns to business as usual,” he said.
Obama had a difficult task, to celebrate how far we have come since Dr. King spoke his words in 1963, while also acknowledging the unfulfilled hopes and dreams. Although he did say the “fierce urgency of now remains,” President Obama did not forcefully convey that sense of urgency, leaving the impression America will be fine if we tweak around the edges. But what if we have made much progress, and we have, but we are also backsliding, as Americans are now forced to fight the same battles over justice and equality, as is the case today?
“And because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, a Civil Rights law was passed. Because they marched, a Voting Rights law was signed,” Obama suggested of the civil rights workers of an earlier day. “Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes.”
“To dismiss the magnitude of this progress — to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed — that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years,” Obama said. “Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Martin Luther King Jr. — they did not die in vain. Their victory was great. But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete,” he added.
In his remarks, the President alluded to those who “went to jail to protest unjust laws” during the civil rights movement, without mentioning the unjust laws standing in our way right now.
Wasting a golden opportunity, Obama failed to discuss the erasure of the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court, and blatant attempts by states across the country to deprive people, especially people of color, students and others of their right to vote. In addition, Obama failed to mention the battles he and his Justice Department are waging against the state of Texas, in an epic struggle for the basic voting rights of black and Latino citizens.
To his credit, the president did give us a taste of what is not well in the U.S., including black unemployment remaining twice the white rate, the growth in the racial wealth gap, the financial decline of all working Americans regardless of color, and the specter of poverty.
“For over a decade, working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate, even as corporate profits soar, even as the pay of a fortunate few explodes. Inequality has steadily risen over the decades. Upward mobility has become harder,” Obama explained.
Yet the president did not mention that the U.S. suffers from the most inequality in the developed world due to Wall Street, with the highest poverty rate in a generation at 15%, and 80% of Americans facing poverty and unemployment in their lifetime, thanks to a retreat by the government in the fight for economic justice.
And while President Obama argued “the twin forces of technology and global competition” have cost the middle class jobs, there was no mention of King’s desire to rid the country of the interrelated “triple evils” of racism, militarism and economic exploitation.
Dr. King called America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” and understood that war expenditures undermined the war on poverty. Meanwhile, Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner like King—but with big shoes to fill in that regard— is mulling over plans to bomb Syria.
This week, no one should have expected the president’s own version of the “I Have A Dream” speech Dr. King delivered at the Lincoln Memorial half a century ago. After all, politicians and prophets occupy different spaces.
Obama had to strike a balance between honoring history and talking policy. Yet, he should have been more forceful to reflect the urgency of these times in which Americans live. That is what inspires and mobilizes people.
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