Obama’s Dream, 50 Years Hence

Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Delegates cheer during the keynote address by U.S Senate candidate Barack Obama of Illinois at the Democratic National Convention on July 27, 2004 in Boston.

Updated at 1:41 and 1:46 pm EDT with the president’s remarks today

“My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t end there. At least that’s what I would choose to believe.”
— Barack Obama, first black president of the Harvard Law Review,  “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,’‘ 1995

“There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”
— Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama, keynote speech, 2004 Democratic National Convention

 “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.”
– U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, candidate for president, 2008 campaign speech, Constitution Center, Philadelphia

 “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African- American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African- American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away.”
– President Barack Obama, July 19, 2013, statement following court ruling in the trial of shooter George Zimmerman

Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States, son of a Kenyan father and Kansan mother, has not run on race.

Rather, he has run from the racial commentaries of his former pastor, rejecting the inflammatory words of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago as `divisive” and “incendiary,” as Obama called them during his debut campaign statement on racial relations in America — on a stage in Philadelphia. He was forced to deliver that address as a matter of political self-survival after Wright’s local pulpit oratory took flight in a national campaign.

During more than five years as president, Obama has taken few opportunities to directly confront the facts of racial life in America.

He attempted to smooth over his own public criticism of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police after their arrest of Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home, with a July 2009 “beer summit” for the professor and policeman James Crowley on the South Lawn of the White House. Both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden rolled up their sleeves at that round table set with mugs.

And on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where the Rev. Martin Luther King had stood 50 years before, the president on Aug. 29, 2013, joined in the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.

“We would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete,” Obama said then. “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency. Whether by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote, or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all, and the criminal justice system is not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails, it requires vigilance.”

Obama has personally redeemed the “promissory note” of freedom that King invoked in his own “I Have a Dream” speech’ at the memorial to the 16th president of the U.S. who signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet the 44th president largely has avoided trading on the basic historical fact of his presidency.

This, in part, is what lends a certain poignancy to the president’s comments when he appears, as he is today, at an event such as the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Obama delivers a speech at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.

As Bloomberg’s Roger Runningen, traveling with the president in Texas notes, Obama has traced his own political pedigree to LBJ’s signing of a law when Obama was two years old.

“Because of LBJ’s commitment to civil rights, he is a very important president to Obama,” says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential historian at the University of Texas in Austin. “The meaning to Obama is both professional and personal — hugely personal.”

The nation’s first African-American commander-in-chief has often credited the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights acts with widening opportunities for people of color, Runningen notes.

“I might not be here as president had it not been for those who courageously helped to pass the Voting Rights Act,” Obama said at a press conference in Senegal, during a trip to Africa on June 27, 2013.

Today’s anniversary celebration is another turn in that “arc of the moral universe.” And for the first black president, it’s a quite personal turn.

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On stage at the LBJ library today, Obama told the story of Johnson’s upbringing and his ultimate political challenge, putting the power of the presidency to use for a cause that cost his own party the South for a generation and more.

“Those of us who’ve had the singular privilege to hold the office of the presidency know full well that progress in this country can be slow… The office humbles you,” Obama said. “You are reminded that, in this great country, you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history.

“The presidency also offers a unique opportunity to bend those currents,” he said — three times echoing Johnson’s signature remark: “What the hell is the presidency for?”

“What President Johnson understood was that equality required more than the absence of oppression,” he said, speaking of a legacy of legislation that protected peoples’ rights if not guaranteeing them respect.

“Today we remain locked in the same great debate about equality and opportunity and the role of government in ensuring each he said, noting that some say “racism is so embedded in our DNA that there is no use in trying politics — the game is rigged. But such theories ignore history.”

“Yes, race still colors our political debates,” Obama said in a half-hour address. “In a time when cynicism is too often passed off as wisdom, it’s perhaps easy to conclude that there are limits to change, that we are trapped by our own history, and politics is a fool’s errand, and we’d be better off if we rolled back big chunks of LBJ’s legacy, or at least if we don’t put too much of our hope, invest too much of our hope in our government.”

“I reject such cynicism  because I have lived out the promise of LBJ’s efforts,” he said. “Because of the civil rights movement, because of the laws President Johnson signed, new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody, not all at once, but they swung open. Not just blacks and whites, but also women and Latinos and Asians and Native Americans and gay Americans and Americans with a disability.

“They swung open for you and they swung open for me,” the president said. “That’s why I’m standing here today, because of those efforts, because of that legacy.

“My fellow Americans,” he said in closing, “we shall overcome.

“We, the citizens of the United States.”



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