Almost exactly 50 years after Martin Luther King turned the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, as Rep. John Lewis said, into a pulpit, President Obama stepped onto those same steps and into history. He took the opportunity to talk about not just racial equality, but the economic justice that the original marchers sought.
Those marchers, the president said, sought “not just the absence of oppression, but the presence of economic opportunity.” He continued:
For what does it profit a man, King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal? This idea that one’s liberty is linked to one’s livelihood that, the pursuit of happiness requires the dignity of work, the skills to find work, decent pay, some measure of material security, this idea was not new.
King explained that the goals of African Americans were identical to working people of all races. Decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community.
But, Obama said, it is in the realm of economic opportunity where “the goals of 50 years ago have fallen most short.”
The racial gap in wealth “has not lessened, it’s grown.” The president called the dreams of economic opportunity that King described as being “the dream of every American.”
A recent survey from Pew Research shows that this isn’t just political bluster. The survey, which found that many Americans still feel like there’s a long way to go to racial equality, showed that in the decades since the first March on Washington, the racial gap in household income has actually increased. The poverty rate for black Americans is also nearly double the white poverty rate, and unemployment among African-Americans has been consistently higher than that of white Americans.
In July, that employment difference was stark: 12.6 percent unemployment for African-Americans, 6.6 for white.
But this isn’t just a racial issue. As the president said, “the position of all working Americans, regardless of color, has eroded, making the dream Dr. King described even more elusive.”
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 willing to work hard regardless of race into the ranks of a middle class life.
The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. 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.
To win that battle, to answer that call, this remains our great unfinished business.
Speaking earlier about King, the president said that his “words belong to the ages,” but that “we would do well to recall the day itself also belonged to ordinary people, whose names never appeared in the history books, or got on TV.”
“In the face of violence,” he said, “they stood up and sat in, with the moral force of nonviolence.” These are the people who had learned from “a lifetime of indignities…that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us.”
As Obama often does, he pointed to the younger generation as a promise of success to come—both on racial equality and economic justice:
For the young are unconstrained by habits of fear. Unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dare to dream differently, to imagine something better.
Just slightly earlier in the afternoon, former President Bill Clinton brought in the political, saying that “a great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon.”
The civil rights legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. that was hailed by presidents today is only one part of the man himself. But the more radical King has largely been ignored.
You can read Obama’s full remarks here.
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