President Obama, in a passionate plea to recast Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech for a new generation, told Americans that to suggest the country hasn’t fundamentally changed on race is to “dishonor” King and his civil rights cohorts. But, the president also said, the failure to realize half of King’s message – economic justice for all – threatens to grind “the gears of a great democracy ... to a halt.”
On a drizzly afternoon in Washington, Mr. Obama – perhaps the ultimate beneficiary of King’s work and sacrifice – described the past 50 years as an arc to racial equality. He laid out arguably his clearest vision for America’s future, calling on people to virtually march toward the inalienable rights not just of personhood, but also of a middle-class life.
The way there, he said, is for Americans to have the courage not to turn away from each other, but “towards one another.”
“As we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks could join the ranks of millionaires. It was whether this country would admit all people who are willing to work hard regardless of race into the ranks of a middle-class life,” Obama said. “The test was not, and never has been, whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many.”
He was flanked by surviving members of the King family as well as two past Democratic presidents, although no surviving Republican presidents. The event Wednesday capped five days of commemorations of the 1963 March on Washington. Many of the remembrances and recollections became reminders of how different America has become, in large part because of the moral “truth force” of King.
The trailblazing pastor from Atlanta was widely seen as a pariah, including by President Kennedy, before his 1968 assassination in Memphis, Tenn. Then began his transformation into an iconic figure, someone whom former President Carter on Wednesday called “the greatest leader that my native state and my native country ever produced, and that includes past presidents and the Founders.”
His work, including the 1963 speech, laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both of which forcibly ended the segregation and voting injustices of Jim Crow. Having identified King’s speech as one of the five best oratorical gestures of history, Obama had said before his own speech that he’d be hard pressed to match the sheer force of King’s message and oratory. He was presumably right, though the clarity of his vision for the country will probably be referenced as a landmark of his presidency.
At the event, which was organized by the King family, Obama tried to talk over Washington’s partisans and directly to Americans. Yet the day pointed up a paradox of his presidency: Although his leadership has yielded some benefits for poorer Americans, including more subsidized health care, it has largely failed to turbocharge the economy. As a result, African-Americans, especially, are enduring high unemployment, and the wealth disparity between blacks and whites has begun to widen.
Wednesday’s affair seemed at times lifted out of the Democratic Party playbook. Veiled barbs were offered up for largely conservative concerns – such as the concern that Obama’s vision for the country hews too closely to European-style socialism.
Presidents Clinton and Carter, white Southerners both, helped provide the partisan edge. Carter suggested that King would have been horrified at “a country awash in guns” and at the fact that there are “835,000 African-American men in prison.”
The Rev. Bernice King also added a tough edge in her speech, suggesting that “we are still chained by economic disparities and conditions of poverty, and we’re still bound by a cycle of civil unrest and inherent social biases in our nation and world that degenerates into violence and destruction.”
Obama’s most partisan and pointed comments came later in the speech, when he talked about “entrenched interests, those who benefit from the unjust status quo, [resisting] any effort to give the working class a fair deal.”
He added: “We’d be told that growing inequality was a price for a growing economy, a measure of this free market; that greed was good and compassion ineffective and those without jobs or health care had only themselves to blame.” And in a stab at the tea party movement that is pulling the Republican Party to the right, he said such individuals have done “their best to convince middle-class Americans ... that government was somehow itself to blame for their growing economic insecurity.”
Yet Obama also retained some barbs for liberals, saying, “Racial politics could cut both ways, as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead, was too often framed as a mere desire for government support – as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.”
That history, he said, “is how progress stalled. That's how hope was diverted. It's how our country remained divided.”
“We now have a choice,” he went on. “We can continue down our current path.... Or we can have the courage to change.”
To do that, Obama said, “we’ll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience ... that truth force inside each of us.... That’s where courage comes from, when we turn not from each other, or on each other, but towards one another.”