In earlier interviews President Obama had conceded that his speech Wednesday at the Lincoln Memorial would be no match for the eloquence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose “I have a dream speech” in 1963 is called the greatest address of the 20th Century.
True to his word, Obama’s speech was not earthshaking. Yet it was rich in symbolism and subtle significance. Just by his showing up in space made sacred by Dr. King, his very presence as one of the most powerful and respected leaders in the world spoke volumes. If he had stood as unmoving as the granite statue of King nearby on the mall, his presence as the nation’s first black president and a viable hero shouted to all: We—the agrieved, the abused, the reviled, —We Won.
The underlining theme of the presidential message was that if our nation can remember how non-violent struggle pushed the nation to higher, moral ground, we will keep winning. It was not just one superman— but activists super-charged, unselfish and committed -- that broke down the walls of segregation and discrimination where dreams once thought impossible, today are quite ordinary.
Fifty years ago as a college student I made the 13 hour bus ride from my hometown of Columbus, Ohio to the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice. I was surprised to learn that my color denied me the right to try on a dress before purchasing it in some district department stores. At home I was being told colored women were not welcome at journalism schools and when I traveled to Tennessee as a student activist, our group was chased by carloads of white racists. I feared for my life. In those days when there were only five blacks in Congress, I never dreamed that today where would be 101 women, 44 blacks, 31 Latinos and 12 Asian Americans in Congress. A black president was certainly an impossible thought.
Now, the world in which I was barely tolerated has drastically changed so much that the scenes at the Lincoln Memorial brought tears to my eyes and a smile on my face.
On stage with Obama, was Oprah Winfrey, a billionaire, who was once a journalist, just like me. Three presidents, Carter and Clinton, as well as Obama attributed their presidency to the voting revolution launched by King. The audience rose when famous freedom fighter Rep. John Lewis spoke at the podium recalling how he was beat unmercifully trying to integrated public buses.
The King family –who has suffered the assassination of their beloved father, brother and grandfather—was on stage. Among them was King’s recently married son, 52-year-old Dexter. Martin III, who spoke, also held his five-year-old daughter Yolanda in his lap. King’s 85-year-old sister Christine Farris spoke. Coretta King once told me how she agonized over how noted female civil rights leaders, such as Dorothy Height were not allowed to speak at the 1963 march, but now her youngest child, 50-year-old Bernice King, CEO of the King Center, not only spoke, but organized the march, summoned the poor and the powerful. And they came.
Obama’s speech was not just a wander down memory lane. He reiterated his resolve to fight the forces that have kept black unemployment often twice that of whites, failing schools and urged people not to make “poverty as an excuse for not raising your children.”
Symbolism aside, however, there were some such as DC delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton who said Obama should have used the moment to talk tough to a recalcitrant Congress which has consistently blocked his measures to uplift the poor and the middle-class. Some were disappointed that he did not restate the pledge of Atty. General Eric Holder to probe how the Justice Department can impact the unfair outcome of George Zimmerman walking free after killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. And while he spoke against the legislative moves to block voting rights, he did not address voting rights for the district.
There were hundreds of other causes and concerns he could have addressed, but he did outline a powerful prescription for change. It goes far beyond the superman syndrome of one man. It called for collective struggle of committed activism.
“The good news is, just as was true in 1963, we now have a choice. We can continue down our current path, in which the gears of this great democracy grind to a halt and our children accept a life of lower expectations; where politics is a zero-sum game where a few do very well while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking economic pie -- that’s one path. Or we can have the courage to change.”
President Obama reminded the crowds that change rarely comes from Washington but from the bottom up. In other words, he threw the gauntlet down, not just to Congress, or racist extremists, or budget cutters, but to those still waiting for their turn, their change. The answer is not one Superman, but super-people fired up with the courage to change.
President Clinton uttered a similar message:” Martin Luther King did not live and die to hear us complain," said Clinton. "It is time to stop complaining and put our shoulders against the stubborn gates holding the American people back.”
As the close of the ceremonies, the five-year-old daughter of Martin III, Yolanda, (named after Dr. King’s oldest child who died in 2007 at the age of 51) rang the bell that once hung at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where a firebomb took the lives of four little girls less than a month after the March. Her grandfather ended his 1963 speech with a prophetic vision that one day instead of violence freedom would ring across the nation.
If freedom continues to ring and reign, if this generation follows the president’s prescription for change, one day even a woman who looks something like Dr. King’s adult granddaughter will be standing at that sacred spot as president addressing the nation.