On this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the nation’s first black president will address the country from the very spot where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his moving “I Have a Dream” speech – a rousing petition for an end to racial discrimination. The visual of President Obama on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial will be a powerful commentary on America’s progress, and will have special meaning for African-Americans.
The election of a black man to the presidency has forever changed the outlook of African-Americans, but it has not changed our circumstances. Mr. Obama's election was anticipated as the culmination of the two complementary, but distinct, events of August 28, 1963 – the march and the speech. These are often couched as synonymous when, actually, one was an activist demand for equal rights and the other an emotional plea for equality. In fact, President Obama is the embodiment of the King’s inspiring oration, but not the personification of the march’s black activism.
There is no question that African-Americans were, and remain, incredibly proud that the nation entrusted its highest office to a black man. Images from the night of the 2008 presidential election reflect the deep, emotional significance of that event. Many remarked that the election served as proof that the American dream was finally tangible, and that it would no longer be dishonest to tell their children they could achieve anything.
His election is, and will forever be, Obama’s most significant contribution to African-Americans. Much as King’s speech provided a moment and a figure that symbolized a people’s heartfelt desire for equality, Obama’s election and two-term presidency updated the dream and positively changed the realm of the possible for African-Americans. Given the nation’s history, America is a renewed, if not new, place for many African-Americans now that a black man sits in the White House. This is not trivial.
Of course, this pride is not limited to one racial demographic. All Americans should be proud that our history has been a steady march toward the inclusiveness that has always been a part of the American idea, if not always evident in practice. No one group owns this achievement, but it’s undeniable that African-Americans rightly have an outsized connection to it.
But just as inspiration has its place, so does activism. There was a sense among African-Americans that once Obama assumed the presidency, he would begin to address the long-ignored ills that have plagued many black communities for decades. Instead, he made very clear early on that his job is to help all Americans by strengthening the middle class and speeding the economic recovery through fair-share, progressive tax and other policies.
For example, when criticized about not doing enough to help African-American businesses, he’s replied, “My general view has been consistent throughout, which is that I want all businesses to succeed. I want all Americans to have opportunity. I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of the United States of America.” And this is exactly correct. Anyone expecting Obama to make the plight of African-Americans the focus of his presidency does not fully appreciate the enormity of the office and issues it must address.
The result is that his election and policies have not significantly affected the conditions in black America as advocated for at the March in 1963. The full name of that political demonstration is instructive: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This assembly of Americans of all races, but primarily blacks, was an expression of solidarity for very specific requests of the federal government. The agenda consisted of petitions for fair employment practices, sufficient wages, access to suitable and integrated schools, and nondiscriminatory housing.
Yet, even as the job market has recovered under Obama, black unemployment remains in a perpetual state of recession-level percentages, and consistently twice the national average. African-American wage disparity as compared to the national average remains an issue today just as it always has. An Economic Policy Institute report, “The Unfinished March,” shows that concentrated, impoverished housing and school segregation today remain very close to the levels they did in 1963. African-American imprisonment rates, particularly for young men, remain appalling.
The president has simply aligned his approach with the adage, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” In other words, by simply helping all Americans, the theory goes, it is inevitable that African-Americans will also benefit. But what the March on Washington, and many members of the black community, argued is that the primary issue was about disparities – that rising tides do not close those gaps. Thus, from a practical perspective, not much has changed about the African-American experience under a black president.
To be sure, there have been some steps the president has taken to specifically help African-Americans. His executive order awarding grants to historically black colleges and universities was a welcome development, though the recent change in some federal loan requirements means fewer students will be there to take advantage. Additionally, the announcement that the Department of Justice would undertake sentencing reform was welcome news to exasperated African-Americans – even if many would have preferred the Obama administration to have tackled the issue much earlier.
For all the meaning that will be on display when President Obama takes the stage to commemorate a seminal moment in American history, it will be a largely symbolic moment that does not bring about the change the March on Washington demanded. This may have to be enough. After all, his contribution as role model has forever changed the nation.
Though most African-Americans wanted him to be the embodiment of the speech and the march, it was probably too much, if not inappropriate, to expect him to be both. The work that remains is now the province of the newly inspired. And this, too, is exactly correct.
Theodore Roosevelt Johnson III is an active-duty Navy officer, writer, and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US government.