I have often wondered what the bust of King in the Oval Office would whisper to the president when he’s working alone late at night. The symbolism of King’s presence in the White House is powerful; symbols do matter. But the substance of his “I Have a Dream” speech is being ignored half a century later.
For me, the brilliance of King’s speech was his unique ability to unapologetically rebuke the nation for its sins yet still present America a vision for how she could be greater. He did this not by trying to transcend who he was — a black Baptist preacher — but by authentically embracing his full citizenship as a black American.
This is why it’s so troubling whenever Obama says that he is not “the president of black America,” but “the president of all America.” Actually, he’s both. He would never say that he is not the president of gay, Latino or Jewish America. So why the defensive posture when it comes to his fellow black citizens?
Sociologist William Julius Wilson recently highlighted the opportunity Obama has in Wednesday’s speech. “If you don’t have skills or a decent education in this global economy, your chances for mobility are limited,” Wilson told The Washington Post. “The problem is especially acute for low-skilled black males, and many turn to crime and end up in prison, which further marginalizes them and decreases their employment opportunities. It would be great if the president raised such issues when he comments on the March on Washington, because I strongly believe he is fully aware of them.”
After the march of 1963, King wrote his third book, “Why We Can’t Wait.” In it, he admonishes those who want his people to “quietly endure, silently suffer and patiently wait.” He also warned America, in his speech at the march, against taking the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
It’s no secret that 50 years later, despite all the progress we have made, class and race are still undeniable factors holding back too many fellow citizens of all colors and creeds, but disproportionately black Americans. As I have said many times, when you make black America better, you make all of America better.
This president is fond of making history. Well, sometimes the best way to make history is to let history come to you. In truth, the present is history. It’s abundantly clear by the staging of Obama’s address that the White House sees this historic moment as an opportunity to burnish the president’s legacy.
But if Obama is to be transformational and not just transactional, a statesman and not just another politician, a thermostat and not just a thermometer, then it’s time for him to use his power to help regulate the temperature of our society and not just settle for recording the temperature of public opinion. It’s time to take some risks. To stop playing it safe in the second term. To tell the truth about the suffering in America that’s being rendered invisible simply because we choose not to see it.
Poverty is threatening our democracy; it is now a matter of national security. As King said, war is still the enemy of the poor. Our education system, in many ways, is still separate and unequal. As King lived under constant surveillance, our government seems now to be spying on all of us.
In the end, it’s about what kind of nation and what kind of people we choose to be. There can be no distinction between what we believe and what we do. It’s time for more than just celebrating King with our words. It’s time to start emulating him with our deeds.
Read more from Outlook:
What would MLK Jr. march for today?
Five myths about the March on Washington
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