Fifty years ago today, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a quarter million people and a watching nation “to cash a check” — that “promissory note” of freedom for all which the founders had issued and yet which had proved to be “a bad check” for black Americans.
Today, in King’s place, will stand the first African-American president of the United States, a leader who has navigated the perimeter of the civil rights cause in America without placing himself squarely in the center of it.
Born at a time when blacks were still denied seats at Southern lunch counters, a little more than two years before King delivered his “dream” to a national audience, Barack Obama, son of a black man from Kenya and white woman from Kansas and married, as he said, to “a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave-owners,” won election to office in Illinois and then Washington with post-racial election campaigns, only occasionally addressing the most perplexing lingering problem in American culture.
He confronted it most directly and exhaustively in Philadelphia, in March 2008, after the incendiary, racially charged words of his former longtime pastor in Chicago, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, flooded Obama’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. “This is where we are right now,” he said of the dilemma evident in his allegiance to a pastor and rejection of his remarks. “It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own. But I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”
And more recently, after a self-appointed white neighborhood guardian was acquitted in the shooting of a black teenager named Trayvon Martin walking home from a convenience store in central Florida, the president told reporters: “When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago… There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me… I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.”
Yet, just as King’s speech opened as an appeal to economic equality — it was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” that was playing out that day 50 years ago — Obama’s speech today on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial may again navigate that perimeter of a movement more focused today on raising millions of people from poverty and from jobs that don’t deliver living wages. As he focuses on pursuing a promise of voting rights for all propelled by the legislation of the 1950’s and 60’s, he’ll also be talking about economic rights.
Clarence Jones, the attorney and writer for King who offered the conceit about the promissory note for the speech made 50 years ago, also recalls that it was the improvisation of King himself which gave that appearance its place in history. Mahalia Jackson, the gospel singer to whom King turned for inspiration when he was depressed, called out from the sideline: “Tell them about the dream.” She was invoking a speech King had delivered at Cobo Hall in Detroit, and as she did he pushed his prepared script to the side. Jones, interviewed by NPR’s Michele Norris, recalls telling his friends: The crowd doesn’t know it, “but they are about to go to church.”
So much of what King sought remains unfulfilled, as Andrew Young, who was there 50 years ago and will be there again today, told Atlanta’s Tom Baxter, writing for Bloomberg News today: “What history has largely missed from King’s `I Have a Dream’ speech, Young said, was its emphasis on jobs and the economy — the references in King’s words to the nation’s default on a `promissory note,’ the `bad check” it had written to black citizens, and the minority community’s refusal to believe there were `insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this nation’… The troubles in the world have led us to the problem he was trying to address, and that is poverty,” Young said. “You’ve got freedom and dignity and equal opportunity, and in the meantime the economy has grown global, and also electronic. To deal with a global economy in the midst of a global recession requires another vision, and nobody seems to have it.”
Obama has appeared on Lincoln’s porch before, near the eve of his first inauguration. He drew a crowd on the National Mall larger than King’s. He spoke of “the dream of a King,” and said: “I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure, that it will prevail, that the dream of its founders will live on in our time.” Many others also have appeared before this memorial to a man who saved a nation from division over slavery.
It’s unlikely, as Obama has told interviewer Tom Joyner, that the president can match the oratory heard in this place five decades ago — one of the five best speeches in American history, by his count. Yet his mere presence on the steps today serves as a reminder of how far a nation founded with a promise of universal freedom and a blind eye toward slavery, a nation that enshrined racial segregation well into the 20th Century, has come in five decades since King’s march.