50 years after MLK, Obama delivers predictable rhetoric against a historic backdrop

President Barack Obama speaks at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. (The Washington Post)

The president began with a recapitulation, an attempt to recall in lyrical fashion who came to Washington in 1963, where they came from, how they got here and why they made the journey. They were “seamstresses, and steelworkers, and students, and teachers, maids and Pullman porters,” he told the crowd, gathered on the Mall for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. At least three items on that list of humble occupations are now footnotes to history, and so it went throughout much of the speech, and much of the day: Nostalgia fed the desire to remember, to know the details, to make lists, and yet the lists only reminded us of how much the world has changed.

They came by bus, they hitchhiked, they walked, the president said, struggling to capture the fluent repetitions of the speech that hovered in the background, at least as monumental as the giant statue of Abraham Lincoln behind him. Martin Luther King Jr. also made lists when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the same spot, 50 years ago. King’s lists were geographical and hortatory — “go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia” — recalling a shared landscape, connecting people to place, suggesting demographic diversity through the physical diversity of landscape. Obama’s lists were more narrative, short visual suggestions of what it might have felt like to be there when King spoke, vignettes with a curiously newsreel narrator feel to them: “With the few dollars they scrimped from their labor, some bought tickets and boarded buses.”

It wasn’t Obama’s best speech, but it may be his most complete statement on race and equality to date. It touched on the basic themes he has reiterated each time he has been drawn to the subject: that we have come a long way but are not done yet; that progress comes only through collective commitment; that there were missteps along the way; that African Americans were in some cases diverted from the promise of King into self-defeating social pathologies; that there is always a chance to begin again and renew the dream of equality; that the cause King championed is connected to a broader civil rights, justice and opportunity agenda; and that the future is bright if we all work together.

“I know the road will be long, but I know we can get there,” Obama summarized just before he began the refrain that organized the speech’s peroration: “We’re marching.”

Obama’s speaking style is now so familiar that almost as soon as he said those words, “we’re marching,” it was clear that they would build, motivically, through a long crescendo of repetition. The tireless teacher, who arrives early and stays late and pays out of her pocket for school supplies, she’s marching. The fair-minded businessman who spreads the wealth, he’s marching. Parents who sacrifice to raise their kids, they’re marching. And so on, about half a dozen times, until this attempt to equate basic civic and personal duty with sacrifices made by the marchers half a century ago was turned outward, to the audience, which was assured: You are marching, too.

The problem with this image was that no one was marching. Wednesday’s festivities, presided over by the proprietary King family like a religious pageant, were essentially a made-for-TV spectacle. The elites sat onstage, near the president; the people stood politely in the rain. The crowd that milled about behind King during his “I Have a Dream” speech was nowhere to be seen. The cleanliness of Wednesday’s spectacle required something simpler, just the president seen against the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The original March on Washington had involved a grand effort at mobilizing people, at a time of increasing restlessness and marching and suffering and dying. The latter-day reprise felt more static, a gathering not a mobilization, at best, a sentimental journey with only vain rhetorical allusions to the old sense of urgency, motion and confrontation with evil.

And so, with the skill of a practiced teacher trying to animate dead history with plenty of lively detail, Obama kept up a volley of verbs and gerunds: Returning veterans help one another to “stand again and walk again and run again,” part of an America that is working, striving, challenging, weeping.

Throughout the day, from celebrities, movie stars, millionaires and political insiders who took to the lectern, there was a powerful sense that the spirit of 1963 has grown dim, that we need to reignite the political passion that brought people to Washington half a century ago, that we need a resurgence of people power. The president offered a provocative political to-do list that he thinks should reanimate the country. But spectacle won out, history was converted into an entertainment pageant, with musical numbers, and weirdly decontextualized rituals, like the bell ringing at 3 p.m. to mark the moment King’s speech ended. It was part funereal, part celebratory and often self-congratulatory. The president’s rhetorical shift from third person to the second, from “they’re marching” to “you’re marching,” merely underscored the fundamental premise of spectacle: The viewer, passively consuming the image, is magically transformed into a participant.

It’s hard to imagine it could have been done any other way. Americans can’t process history without spectacle. Of course the president had to speak, and of course the cadences of his speech would be familiar and musically inspiring. But the insistence on motion at a time when the country is in gridlock, the over-processed and stale visuals that have become a staple of the Washington Entertainment-Political-Celebrity event, even a certain fatigue in the president’s delivery, as if he knows we’ve heard all these melodies a few too many times, made it difficult to hear the speech as anything more than the soundtrack to a highly scripted, overly stage-managed performance.

READ MORE:

Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech check metaphor should not be forgotten

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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