Is this what Dr. King died for?
It’s a question that lingers in the minds of millions of Americans as we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of some of the most consequential moments in the Civil Rights Movement and American history. It is also a question that President Obama attempted to answer when he addressed the nation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, saying:
“And because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, a Civil Rights law was passed. Because they marched, a Voting Rights law was signed…. Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed and, yes, eventually, the White House changed.”
However, as President Obama stood in the historical shadow of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one could not help but feel underwhelmed by the lack of political courage at the podium. Instead of being offered a unifying and compelling vision for America in the era of Obama, hopeful listeners were only left with customary adulation of historical figures and enfeebled descriptions of America’s current challenges, remarks that were engulfed in a blinding political veneer. Obama further stated:
“And then, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that during the course of fifty years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way … as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself…. That's how hope was diverted. It's how our country remained divided.”
In 1963, King did not decry his own movement, nor did he place blame on the victims of history. He instead offered a vision for and a path to an America defined by equality, justice, and opportunity. We must remember that King’s remarks were historic not just because of his incomparable oratory; his words were historic also because he challenged America to be better than what it was in 1963:
“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality…. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”
History admires leaders who are willing to go where America is broken, rise to the challenge and lead a nation in finding a solution. That’s what Lincoln did in the midst of the Civil War. It’s what Roosevelt did during the Great Depression. It’s what the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson did as they travelled throughout Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta fighting to eradicate poverty. It’s something that America has not witnessed since.
The absence of a broader vision and critique of America in the age of Obama ignores an opportunity to display and discuss the genuine struggles of millions of Americans that often go unheard and little noticed. However, this “lost opportunity” is not the only one of this Presidency. Whether in Philadelphia during the 2008 campaign, during the “Beer Summit” of 2009, or even in the wake of he Zimmerman verdict, this President has done excellent work of offering descriptive explanations for racial injustice and inequity. However, many Americans feel that oftentimes he has lacked prescriptive solutions.
Let’s not forget that today the number of African Americans incarcerated exceeds the number of slaves in the Antebellum South. The persistence of the achievement gap in education is a threat to social mobility and our national conscience. This summer alone, the signature legislation of the Civil Rights Movement, the Voting Rights Act, was rendered ineffective by the Supreme Court. Beyond these challenges remain the millions of people who are forced to live in the shadows of a broken immigration system, as well as those who are unable to marry whom they love.
The Civil Rights movement is one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of American democracy. It’s a legacy that all Americans should proudly accept, celebrate, and relish. More importantly, it’s a legacy that comes with a responsibility for each generation to continue to make progress. It’s not enough to pay lip service alone; we each must do our part to continue the work of the giants on whose shoulders we stand. It is indeed our obligation to follow in their footsteps and challenge America to be better than itself, and to to perfect our union.
Since the March on Washington, the Jim Crow regime has collapsed. Many barriers previously thought to be permanent have now been shattered. Individuals have achieved a great deal for themselves and this nation. However, when presented with the question of whether we have done enough in the era of Obama to overcome our brutal national legacy of injustice and inequality, in the December 2012 words of President Obama: “if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.”
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