If there was a time to bring back hope and change, this was it.
President Barack Obama revived the themes of his groundbreaking presidential campaign to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington Wednesday in a bittersweet speech that acknowledged his own place in history amid the ongoing struggle for racial equality.
“Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed, and, yes, eventually the White House changed,” he said as applause rose from the crowd spilling from the Lincoln Memorial and across the Mall.
While the speech by the first black president on the same spot where Martin Luther King Jr. famously declared “I have a Dream” may have sounded like a rehash to his critics, it delivered a message worth repeating on a day packed with symbolism. The speech did not lay out bold new themes but paid tribute to the civil rights movement while urging the nation — especially the young people — to keep pushing for social justice and economic opportunity.
Obama’s speech was not overtly political, but there was an undertone of populism that recalled his line of attack against his 2012 Republican opponent, Mitt Romney after he scorned the government-dependent “47 percent.” Obama repeatedly noted that the civil rights movement was fueled by unsung heroes and blue-collar workers who made a living “washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes.” He also used the speech, as he has many times before, to defend government as a positive force. That great divide between the two parties and how they view government continues to widen as the president faces unfinished battles over health care, immigration reform and the national debt. As he did during the last campaign, he talked about a “choice,” in what could have been an implicit lecture to Republicans contemplating yet another showdown over the federal budget.
“The promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together,” he said, in one of many calls for unity. “We’ll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago.”
Obama has talked about race only selectively during his presidency, and he linked the goals of the civil rights movement to those pursued by women, gays and people with disabilities, “the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran.” He added, “To win that battle, to answer that call — this remains our great unfinished business.” The embrace of all those who struggle for equality has become a trademark of this president.
In other echoes of his 2008 campaign, Obama declared “the fierce urgency of now” and that “change does not come from Washington but to Washington.” The familiarity of those words pointed to the fact that much like King’s dream of racial utopia, Obama’s presidency has been marked by unfulfilled promises. The one-time senator who gained national attention dismissing the idea of red states and blue states on Wednesday addressed a nation more politically polarized than ever. Left unsaid when he decried the corporate interests and lobbyists that rule Washington — another common campaign theme — was how the pay-to-play culture continues on his watch.
Knowing that comparisons to 50 years ago will be made, Obama made a point to say, “We may never duplicate the swelling crowds and dazzling processions of that day so long ago, no one can match King’s brilliance.” His other notable reference to King’s speech was when he called for “the right of every child, from the corners of Anacostia to the hills of Appalachia, to get an education that stirs the mind and captures the spirit and prepares them for the world that awaits them.” But he only approached the heights of King’s oratory near the end of his speech when he referenced the teacher, the mother, the businessman, the father, the veteran, all “marching” toward a better day.
He left the crowd “fired up and ready to go” as he did during his first campaign. But half a century from now, it’s unlikely Obama’s speech will inspire the way King’s speech does. Still, the overall tone, in keeping with his desire to be perceived as a post-racial, post-partisan figure, was determinedly upbeat. “We will win these fights,” Obama insisted. “This country has changed too much. People of good will, regardless of party, are too plentiful for those with ill will to change history’s currents.”
Obama has frequently talked about his debt to the civil rights pioneers, the “giants whose shoulders we stand on.” They are the Moses generation, the freedom fighters who never crossed over into the promised land. Obama was two years old when King, then 34, delivered his famous speech. On Wednesday, he called on the younger generation, the Joshua generation, to pick up the torch. While Obama’s legacy remains unwritten, it’s certain that there will be future generations standing on his shoulders.
King said “Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.” Obama’s unfinished presidency in 2013 is another link in the chain.