President Obama’s speech commemorating the March on Washington was long — so much longer than Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech that it summoned to mind Edward Everett’s interminable speech at Gettysburg, now a footnote in history and a reminder that great presidential speeches are short.
Let’s, however, start with the positive. The president gave a short recap (in several places) of the civil rights movement, which, in a country where historical literacy is low, is worth repeating (“boycotts and voter registration drives and smaller marches, far from the spotlight, through the loss of four little girls in Birmingham, the carnage of Edmund Pettus Bridge and the agony of Dallas, California, Memphis”).
He also debunked the idea that nothing’s changed, that racism is as bad today as it was then. (“To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed — that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years. Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Martin Luther King Jr. — they did not die in vain. Their victory was great.”) He did not mention the turnout in 2012 of African Americans was higher than whites in much of the Deep South, once the hotbed of institutional racism. (Perhaps it would have suggested the Supreme Court got it right in the Voting Rights Act case.)
And, however briefly, he did note that the challenges today are different from those of the 1960s:
Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. 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 the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself. All of that history is how progress stalled. That’s how hope was diverted. It’s how our country remained divided.
That said, the speech suffered in three respects (other than its unnecessary length).
First, as is often the case, it really had no memorable lines. The most eloquent were directly cribbed from MLK (“every race and every region, every faith and every station can join together in a spirit of brotherhood, then those mountains will be made low, and those rough places will be made plain, and those crooked places they straighten out towards grace”). If he were more sparing with words, perhaps the quality would improve.
Second, the president gave short shrift to the social issues — single parenthood, dropout rates, awful inner-city schools and drugs — that are at the heart of so much of what ails African Americans. Had that been the focus of the speech it might have been more memorable and more interesting. The closest he came was in noting that personal diligence and character are the equivalent of marching. (“That tireless teacher who gets to class early and stays late and dips into her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that every child is her charge — she’s marching. That successful businessman who doesn’t have to but pays his workers a fair wage and then offers a shot to a man, maybe an ex-con, who’s down on his luck — he’s marching.”) You would never guess that if you stay in school, avoid drugs and delay marriage and child-bearing, your chance of escaping poverty is excellent.
The biggest flaw in his speech was his government-centric vision and his zero-sum thinking. He still asserts that getting rich makes others poor. (“Even as corporate profits soar, even as the pay of a fortunate few explodes, inequality has steadily risen over the decades.”) He imagines concerns about government are barely disguised racism, conjuring up some of the most blatant straw men as have ever populated an Obama speech. (“We’d been told that growing inequality was the price for a growing economy, a measure of the free market — that greed was good and compassion ineffective, and those without jobs or health care had only themselves to blame.”)
And of course, you’d have never guessed he’d been president for more than four years. He is so much more comfortable posing as the outsider than accepting the mantle of responsibility that you wondered where the current president was during the proceedings. Who’s the guy not doing anything about inequality? Why has poverty skyrocketed under the current administration? Oh, yes.
But to finish on a high note, the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is a tremendous tribute to the infinite possibilities that America holds as well as the solemn responsibility of each generation to renew and enrich that dream. Oh, that our leaders were up to the task.