President Obama on Sunday praised the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a visionary who stirred the conscience of the nation, saying King “believed in us” as a country. And his speech seemed in many ways to be a call to his supporters, both past and present, to renew their faith in the call for change that got him elected in 008.
“I know we will overcome,” Obama said during his keynote speech at the dedication of the 30-foot monument to to the slain civil rights leader; the first African-American and the first non-president to be honored with a statue on the National Mall. “I know this, because of the man towering over us.”
“He had faith in us,” the president said, speaking of King’s dedication to civil rights, but also to national unity. “And that is why he belongs on this Mall: Because he saw what we might become.”
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The historic import of the dedication was noted by several speakers who preceded the president, including Martin Luther King III and Rev. Bernice King, who spoke at the dedication before the president, and accompanied the Obama family and their children, on a tour of the monument. (Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill toured the monument earlier, along with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who also spoke at the dedication ceremony.)
Obama spoke in the shadow of the hugs stone sculpture, standing just below its inscription, “the stone of hope” — which ironically, echoed one of the major themes of Obama’s presidential candidacy in 2008.
The president in his speech praised not just King, but also “the movement of which he was a part,” which “depended on an entire generation of leaders, as well as the “multitudes of men and women whose names never appear in the history books — those who marched and those who sang, those who sat in and those who stood firm, those who organized and those who mobilized — all those men and women who through countless acts of quiet heroism helped bring about changes few thought were even possible.”
”’By the thousands,’ said Dr. King, ‘faceless, anonymous, relentless young people, black and white…have taken our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,’” the president said. “To those men and women, to those foot soldiers for justice, know that this monument is yours, as well.”
And he paid tribute to some of the civil rights leaders who have passed away in recent years, including Rosa Parks, Dorothy Height, Benjamin Hooks, and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who died this month.
During his speech, Obama touched on themes that seemed designed to resonate with the global protests against Wall Street and the banks, but that also stuck to his long-standing theme of “mutuality.”
WATCH: President Obama dedicates MLK memorial
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Noting that we live in “an America that is more fair and more free and more just than the one Dr. King addressed that day,” Obama made several calls for Americans to “love one another” and to connect with the idea of unity. In a nod to those demonstrating against Wall Street, Obama said that if King were alive, he would enjoin those who are protesting to do so without demonizing everyone who works on Wall Street. And he talked about King’s ability to “confront disappointment” — a seeming nod to elements of his base who have expressed frustration with his attempts at reaching accommodation with Republicans on issues confronting the economy.
In a key passage, Obama seemed to be speaking to his supporters; saying the progress made by the civil rights movement “did not come easily,” and that King’s faith was “hard-won,” having “sprung out of a harsh reality and some bitter disappointments.”
He also talked about King’s image among his contemporaries, and the fact that he was not always regarded as a unifying figure.
“Even after rising to prominence, even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King was vilified by many, denounced as a rabble rouser and an agitator, a communist and a radical,” Obama said. “He was even attacked by his own people, by those who felt he was going too fast or those who felt he was going too slow; by those who felt he shouldn’t meddle in issues like the Vietnam War or the rights of union workers. We know from his own testimony the doubts and the pain this caused him, and that the controversy that would swirl around his actions would last until the fateful day he died.
“Progress was hard,” Obama said. “Progress was purchased through enduring the smack of billy clubs and the blast of fire hoses. It was bought with days in jail cells and nights of bomb threats. For every victory during the height of the civil rights movement, there were setbacks and there were defeats.”
Obama referenced the great “tests” of the present time, including wars, the economic crisis, and it’s aftermath, which have left millions out of work. And he addressed rising inequality and poverty, saying the current political polarization should not keep Americans from struggling together against economic and other disparities. Obama cited King’s teachings as “telling us, we have a duty to fight against poverty, even if we are well off; to care about the child in the decrepit school even if our own children are doing fine; to show compassion toward the immigrant family, with the knowledge that most of us are only a few generations removed from similar hardships.”
Obama also tweaked those, particularly on the right, who have been critical of the protest movements that started on Wall Street and have since spread around the world, saying “those with power and privilege will often decry any call for change as “divisive.” They’ll say any challenge to the existing arrangements are unwise and destabilizing. Dr. King understood that peace without justice was no peace at all; that aligning our reality with our ideals often requires the speaking of uncomfortable truths and the creative tension of non-violent protest.”
But the core of the speech appeared to be a call for both continued struggle and patience with the process of change.
“First and foremost, let us remember that change has never been quick,” Obama said. “Change has never been simple, or without controversy. Change depends on persistence. Change requires determination. It took a full decade before the moral guidance of Brown v. Board of Education was translated into the enforcement measures of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but those 10 long years did not lead Dr. King to give up. He kept on pushing, he kept on speaking, he kept on marching until change finally came.”
“And then when, even after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act passed, African Americans still found themselves trapped in pockets of poverty across the country, Dr. King didn’t say those laws were a failure; he didn’t say this is too hard; he didn’t say, let’s settle for what we got and go home. Instead he said, let’s take those victories and broaden our mission to achieve not just civil and political equality but also economic justice; let’s fight for a living wage and better schools and jobs for all who are willing to work. In other words, when met with hardship, when confronting disappointment, Dr. King refused to accept what he called the “isness” of today. He kept pushing towards the “oughtness” of tomorrow.