When you’re the first black president giving a speech on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” address, you have a tough act to follow.
It was impossible for Obama, despite his stellar oratory skills, to rival, much less surpass Dr. King’s 1963 sermon. But that should not have been the goal, and that is beside the point, in any case.
But for a second-term president hoping to cement his legacy, Obama squandered a unique opportunity to demonstrate some leadership on civil rights, to articulate King’s message and honestly assess how far we have fallen short, and to identify those who stand in the way of justice and equality. In other words, it was a symbolic, commemorative speech that any dignitary or guest speaker could have given and usually gives at King celebrations—but a visionary speech it was not.
The president told someone that giving this speech on the anniversary of the greatest speech ever was “like following Jesus.” And he was right. To his credit, Obama tamped down expectations. In a White House interview, Tom Joyner asked the president whether his speech was ready.
“Not quite yet. Still working on it. But let me just say for the record right now, it won’t be as good as the speech 50 years ago,” Obama said. “Because when you are talking about Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington, you’re talking about one of the maybe five greatest speeches in American history. And the words that he spoke at that particular moment, with so much at stake, and the way in which he captured the hopes and dreams of an entire generation I think is unmatched.”
Obama said he would use the event to “celebrate the accomplishments of all of those folks whose shoulders we stand on and then remind people that the work is still out there for us to do” and honor not only King’s speech but those ordinary people who went to hear him speak.
“We honor them not by giving another speech ourselves — because it won’t be as good — but instead by just doing the day-to-day work to make sure this is a more equal and more just society,” Obama added.
True, words without action mean little. But leaders inspire by what they say to others, what they actually do, and what they mobilize others to do. And when you are the president, you have a 4- or 8-year contract to lead the nation—in Obama’s case, the latter— with ownership rights to the largest bully pulpit imaginable. That gives you the right, if not the duty, to utilize it.
The missed opportunities are hidden in the words of King himself.
In his 1963 oration, King said those who wrote the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence signed a promissory note that all people would be guaranteed unalienable rights—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned,” King declared. “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
There was a strong sense of urgency in King’s words—the “urgency of the moment” as he called it—as he articulated a need for action that could not wait, a need to make the promises of democracy real, and to chart a course to racial justice. “We have also come to this hallowed ground to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” King warned.
There was no idealistic dreamer to be found here.