President Barack Obama stood in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and offered a coda to the brand of post-racial politics that made him the unlikely heir to the legacy of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Even as he honored King’s contributions and sacrifice, praising a man whose oratory possessed a “power and a prophecy unmatched in our time,” Obama, 52, said the broader message from the “I Have a Dream” speech transcended race and spoke to the economic inequalities facing all.
Income disparities today bind people of all colors in a knot of poverty and despair that had to be remedied by those who “have the courage to change,” the president said before a crowd that lined the National Mall, reminiscent of the 250,000 who came to hear King on Aug. 28, 1963.
He also took aim at some of most vexing problems among blacks -- from absent fathers to cultures of dependency to using police brutality as “excuse-making for criminal behavior” -- and he issued a challenge to reverse patterns of low expectations.
“Racial politics could cut both ways, as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination,” Obama said in his 27-minute speech. “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 bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.”
Only implicitly did the president acknowledge his historic ascendance to the White House by saying that because of the marches of King and others that “yes, eventually the White House changed.”
A president’s place in history is often measured by how they meet a moment, whether it is a tragic event, a world crisis, a natural disaster or a time of remembrance.
They are tasked with healing the nation following shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado or the bombing at a federal office building in Oklahoma City, as were President Bill Clinton’s twin burdens -- or the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which came on Obama’s watch.
They offer resolve as President Franklin D. Roosevelt did when he announced a “date which will live in infamy” after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and President George W. Bush vowed through a bullhorn in Manhattan to avenge the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Clinton, from Arkansas, and President Jimmy Carter, from Georgia, two southerners who witnessed segregation in the U.S. in ways that Obama never did as a child in Hawaii and Indonesia, offered personal connections to the movement King led.
“This march, and that speech, changed America,” said Clinton, who in 1998 was figuratively labeled the country’s “first black president” by author Toni Morrison. “They opened minds, they melted hearts and they moved millions, including a 17-year-old boy watching alone in his home in Arkansas.”
Clinton also urged officials in Washington not to use political gridlock as an excuse for inaction, saying King didn’t “live and die to hear his heirs whine.”
Carter, whose 1976 presidential candidacy was endorsed by the King family, said he was especially grateful for the nod from the civil rights leader’s widow, Coretta Scott King. “Every hug from Coretta got me a million Yankee votes,” he said.
Some who have studied King and the civil rights movement said Obama fell short. Aldon Morris, author of “Origins of the Civil Rights Movement” and a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, said, “President Obama is a master politician. He is a master orator. He’s charming. He’s graceful. People love to hear him talk.
‘‘But I think that when it’s said and done people are going to ask what did the president propose today to deal with economic inequality, to deal with the unfairness in the criminal justice system and to deal with the growing wealth disparity between blacks and whites.”
At the same time, Morris said, the president properly captured King’s larger vision about economic opportunity that should cross racial lines. “President Obama was absolutely right to say the vision of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King were broad democratic visions and values,” he said.
Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, said he thought King would have been “hugely proud” to see Obama “tear down those Jericho walls” and become president.
Obama deserves credit for getting “health care to millions of people, both a leading cause of premature death and a leading cause of bankruptcy in many communities,” as well as saving “the car manufacturers and all the jobs that went with it,” Jealous said in a CNN interview.
It is the kind of tension that has freighted Obama’s presidency, with some urging him to become more directly involved in racial issues even as he insisted he was the U.S. president who happened to be black, rather than merely the president of only black America.
In an interview with radio host Tom Joyner that aired Aug. 27, Obama said his address would be no match for the one the 34-year-old King gave a half century ago, a speech that the president said may rank among the five best in American history.
Obama wrote yesterday’s speech largely by himself, his press secretary Jay Carney said. The president didn’t use it to promote proposals he has advanced to solve some of the economic and societal issues he raised. For instance, he referred briefly to his call for increasing the minimum wage and remained silent on Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent directive for U.S. attorneys general to avoid charges that mandate minimum sentences in drug cases, which disproportionately fall on black offenders.
Of the 509,677 blacks in state prisons, 18 percent are incarcerated for drug-related offenses compared with 14.5 percent of whites, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Rather, he offered a framework of aspiration, calling for change to come from outside Washington at the urging of the same type of people whose participation in the civil rights movement wasn’t recorded on television or in the history books, yet was nonetheless indispensable.
Obama said the part of King’s message that focused on economic opportunity had often been overshadowed and today is the most unfulfilled.
“The chance through honest toil to advance one’s station in life, where the goals of the last 50 years have fallen most short,” he said.
“The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit for the few,” Obama said. “It’s whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steel worker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran.”