The two speeches everyone is talking about today, delivered 50 years apart, are powerful bookends for an era of racial progress that began with a church bombing and reached a high point with the election of our country’s first black president.
On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where the man to whom he owes such a great debt made a call half a century ago, President Obama’s response was moving and rational and measured. The crowd was smaller and less boisterous than the one drawn by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day in 1963, but why wouldn’t it be?
“The fierce urgency of now” as King put it, has faded a little. We have a black president, after all, a notion that was nearly inconceivable when King addressed the March on Washington.
With an unenviable amount of pressure to deliver a speech as memorable as the one that has come to be known as King’s “I have a dream” speech, the president paid tribute to the man on whose great shoulders he stands.
But he also remembered the everyday working people -- “those maids, those laborers, those porters, those secretaries” -- who trekked to Washington a half-century ago to take a stand for racial and economic equality.
Without denigrating the past, he made the speech about the present.
As he often does, the president tried to find some middle ground in the enduring debate over how far American race relations have come. He dismissed both those who suggest that “little has changed” and those who suggest that “the work of this nation is somehow complete.”
He didn’t shy away from politics, noting the persistence of high black unemployment and the stagnation of wages of working Americans of all races, and knocking “the entrenched interests” who’ve marshalled “an army of lobbyists and opinion makers” to argue that “minimum wage increases or stronger labor laws or taxes on the wealthy who could afford it” violate sound economic principles.
To the black community, he also delivered some tough love: “If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way,” he said. “The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior…. And what once had 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 the bigotry of others was a reason to give up on yourself.”
It was a very fine speech from a very fine orator.
But if you want to see genuine moral passion, do yourself a favor and watch the 50-year-old speech that gave a rhetorical structure to Obama’s words today, King’s immortal call for justice.
The speech was a great metaphor-strewn cry for equality, beginning with the accusation that when the Founding Fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, they signed a “promissory note” for equality to all American citizens, but what blacks got instead was “a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”
It only lasts 17 minutes, but it is a beautiful and relentless call for equality, and even these many years later, it’s easy to see why it struck fear into the heart of the white power structure, easy to see why J. Edgar Hoover, the nutty anti-communist FBI director, became convinced that King was dangerous and persuaded then-Atty. Gen. Bobby Kennedy to let him bug King’s hotel rooms and wiretap his telephones in an effort to destroy the civil rights leader that lasted until his assassination in 1968 at age 39.
A Baptist minister and pacifist who would win the Nobel Peace Prize the following year, King delivered a powerful, and ultimately prescient, warning:
“This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality,” King said. “Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwind of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
“The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice,” Obama said, neatly paraphrasing one of King’s favorite metaphors, “but it doesn’t bend on its own.”