Obama: Economic Justice ‘Remains Our Great Unfinished Business’

At the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the president took on more than just racial equality.

President Obama speaks at the Let Freedom Ring ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
National Journal
Matt Berman
Aug. 28, 2013, 11:29 a.m.

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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