Wednesday 28 August has to have been something of a bittersweet day for President Barack Obama. It should have been a moment of glorious emotional and political sunlight (even though the weather was drizzly). Instead, even as he stepped up to the podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to speak to an assembled crowd eager to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the great March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he was certainly thinking about the dangerous choices waiting to be made on Syria. J. BROOKS SPECTOR listened to Obama’s reflections on race relations in America in the midst of this difficult moment, exactly a half century after the most important civil rights march in American history.
The commemoration went forward with a roster of speakers that included former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King’s children, television personality Oprah Winfrey and Congressman John Lewis (50 years ago, the young firebrand leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but now the only speaker from the 1963 march still alive). However, Barack Obama’s attention must surely have been split between the Lincoln Memorial and the horrific battle zones in Syria, and the possibility he will soon order the American military to launch a punishing strike on Syrian facilities and forces in response to deaths from a chemical attack on rebel forces and civilians in the Damascus suburbs.
After a crowded roster of speakers, marking the moment Martin Luther King had begun his own speech 50 years ago the King family rang the bell of the 16th Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama, a church that had been firebombed on 15 September 1963, killing four children attending Sunday school. This terrible event, one of the most violent in a hard-line defence of segregation, quickly became one of the major contributing factors in getting the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act enacted into law.
Speaking on radio with popular hosts Tom Joyner and Sybil Wilkes on the Tom Joyner Morning Show the day before his speech, Obama told listeners that he thought Martin Luther King “would be amazed in many ways about the progress that we’ve made,” such as equal protection under the law, a more accessible judicial system, the many thousands of African-American elected officials, a growing list of African-American CEOs and the many other doors that the civil rights movement had opened for Latinos, women and gays. But Obama added the March and King’s speech had been about both jobs and justice: “When it comes to the economy, when it comes to inequality, when it comes to wealth, when it comes to the challenges that inner cities experience, he would say that we have not made as much progress as the civil and social progress that we’ve made, and that it’s not enough just to have a black president, it’s not enough just to have a black syndicated radio show host.”
Still, the change was palpable for many. As Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington, DC’s non-voting member of Congress and a volunteer at the original March told the media, “50 years ago we had to convince the President to let us come. Today, the President is coming to us.”
Watch: Obama’s speech
Not surprisingly, when Obama began his keynote he followed what has now become nearly the standard protocol for such speeches. Drawing on a quotation from the central, founding document of American democracy – the Declaration of Independence – he moved towards the idea freedom is not simply given, but, ultimately, it “must be earned.” And as is another now-familiar protocol, Obama pointed to the many different colours and creeds who have struggled and finally seized their greater freedoms under these ideals.
He argued this march towards greater freedom must never be dismissed as something unimportant or trivial. The heroes of the civil rights struggle had achieved something important, even if their work is still unfinished. Reprising a variation of one his favourite quotations from Martin Luther King’s about the arc of justice bending the right way in the long run, this time around, Obama had added the verbal footnote that “it doesn’t bend on its own.”
Obama chose to remind his audience that the March had had two conjoined goals. It took place not only to achieve the elimination of oppression, but also to achieve the presence of economic opportunity. “One’s liberty is linked to one’s livelihood,” he said, drawing the line in this thinking back to Abraham Lincoln’s words. He added that this second dream had similarly inspired the millions who sought to make America their own nation throughout the country’s history, and not just the hundreds of thousands who had joined the March 50 years earlier. In saying this, however, Obama also cited the persistent, stubborn gap in family income between white and black Americans and the sad fact that upward mobility has become harder, not easier, since the 1960s, at least in part due to the changing nature of the global and national economies. (Earlier, in a similar but more pointed way, when former president Clinton spoke he also criticized several recent Supreme Court decisions that he charged had weakened voting rights protections, adding a frisson of partisan zip to the afternoon of speechmaking.)
Watch: Clinton’s speech
Obama then set out two possible paths for the nation. One path that stays in the same ruts the economy has been stuck in as the national inequalities continue to grow. And a second path that moves towards a greater sense of community and equality, and the ability of people across racial lines to see a larger, common humanity in all Americans. Or, as Obama urged, an embrace of the idea, “when we turn towards each other and find we do not walk alone.” In comments like these, Obama was at pains to turn the lessons of the 1963 March into an inspiration for Americans well beyond its message from those who had led that earlier rally. Obama’s argument was that everyone who attempts to change the stolid status quo “is marching,” every bit as much as the heroes of the civil rights struggle all those years ago.
In fact, Barack Obama’s attempts to reconcile his own views about race have sometimes been complicated. Early in his life he wrestled with his biracial heritage and cosmopolitan, yet unusual, upbringing and it seems to have taken his years in university, marriage, affiliation to a predominately black church in Chicago and several trips to Africa to finally consolidate his identity as an African American. In his best-selling memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” a book that helped bring his promise and his circumstances to a wider public, he described himself, for example, as “the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds.”
And it also took time during his first presidential campaign before the country’s African American population fully embraced him. In fact, his campaign almost came unstuck when video footage of his minister from his church in Chicago unleashing what seemed clearly to be a diatribe against white Americans surfaced. That, however, propelled Obama into delivering what was one of his finest speeches – a nuanced contemplation of the tangled history of race relations, attitudes and identities in America. This speech helped put him on track for a win in the campaign for the Democratic nomination, and then his astonishing election win in November.
More recently, in another crisis in the public sphere about race, after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the killing of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida, Obama took the moment to speak unusually frankly about American racial issues and attitudes. Using personal language, Obama spoke about the experiences he shared with so many other young black men prior to becoming a prominent public figure, such as the indignity of being shadowed in stores and hearing the sound of car doors quickly locked as he passed by on foot. As Obama said, the African-American community has been looking at this issue “through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
Photo: (L-R) U.S. President Barack Obama, former president Jimmy Carter, first lady Michelle Obama and former president Bill Clinton wave from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the end of a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech in Washington, August 28, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed
An AP scene setter for Wednesday’s ceremonies noted, “Barack Obama was two years old and growing up in Hawaii when Martin Luther King Jr delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. 50 years later, the nation’s first black president will stand as the most high-profile example of the racial progress King espoused, delivering remarks Wednesday at a nationwide commemoration of the 1963 demonstration for jobs, economic justice and racial equality.”
It went on to explain, “Obama believes his success in attaining the nation’s highest political office is a testament to the dedication of King and others, and that he would not be the current Oval Office occupant if it were not for their willingness to persevere through repeated imprisonments, bomb threats and blasts from billy clubs and fire hoses. ‘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,’ Obama said in a radio interview Tuesday.”
And, indeed, this newest speech at the Lincoln Memorial – Barack Obama’s on 28 August – might well have been another great moment on that same axis of contemplation by the president about one of America’s most fundamental divisions. But it seemed almost perfunctory, as if it had been a duty rather than an unparalleled opportunity to put the fullest, deepest judgements of his thinking on race and progress before the American people, and the world.
Of course it would have been nearly impossible to surpass the rhetoric that occurred at that 1963 gathering. The final speech of the day, from Martin Luther King, lives as one of the greatest speeches or sermons in American public life. But in an event that should have been a joyous commemoration of one of the country’s proudest moments, Wednesday’s speech seemed to have come from a President deeply preoccupied with invidious choices he will soon make about how to inject America into a third conflict in the Middle East, even as he had set his original cap for the presidency to throw off such weights as miseries inherited from his predecessor. In the near future, the way he deals with the horrors of Syria may well become one of the defining moments of his presidency. But this will also mean he will no longer be able to stay outside of the challenges and temptations of reshaping yet another part of the ancient world more to the liking of Americans. DM
- Voices for Equality, a selection of speeches since Martin Luther King Jr’s address at the Lincoln Monument that have influenced the perceptions of race in America, at New York Times
- Global Viewing Party: Obama on The March, from the State Department
- Obama holds Martin Luther King as personal hero, at AP
- March on Washington commemorated by thousands gathering at Lincoln Memorial, at Washington Post
- President, Not Preacher, but Speaking More on Race, at New York Times
- Guardians of Dr. King’s Dream Regroup in Washington, at New York Times
- The Morning of the March (a report by Calvin Trillin, 28 August 1963), in the New Yorker
- Fifty Years Later, Reassessing the March on Washington, at the New Yorker
- Johnson: A deeply conservative appeal, at the Economist
- Black America: Waking life, at the Economist
Main photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech in Washington August 28, 2013. The bell behind Obama had hung in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., before the church was bombed in 1963 just weeks after King’s famous speech. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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