In his much-anticipated speech marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, President Obama largely avoided the subject of race, instead arguing the civil rights issues of today unite Americans of all colors and are almost entirely about making sure the economy creates more middle-class jobs.
What is largely unmet in achieving Martin Luther King’s dream, according to Obama, is the struggle of many Americans to find decent-paying work and the growing divide between the wealthy and the poor. He called that lack of economic progress “our great unfinished business”, which renders the “dream Dr. King described even more elusive.” Obama dismissed the growing number of black millionaires as irrelevant compared to “whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steelworker.”
“In some ways, though, the securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination — the very significance of these victories may have obscured a second goal of the march, for the men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract idea. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice, not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity,” he said.
He added, “For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?”
Obama aides had said before the much-anticipated speech that the president would not try to match the rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” formulation 50 years ago. Instead, the president looked to achieve a number of objectives at the same time: celebrate a very important moment in American history, speak to the pride blacks in particular feel about the march and describe how close the U.S. is to achieving the goals King laid out five decades ago.
“To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed — that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years,” he said. “Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Martin Luther King Jr., they did not die in vain. (Applause.) Their victory was great.”
But he added, “Dr. King explained that the goals of African-Americans were identical to working people of all races: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures — conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community …. The position of all working Americans, regardless of color, has eroded, making the dream Dr. King described even more elusive.”
The president noted that black unemployment remains double the white jobless rate, but his core message was that the American economy is a challenge for people of all races.
“The measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life,” he said.
Obama made only a single mention to one of the crowing achievements of the civil rights movement: laying the groundwork for the election of a black president 45 years later.
“Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed, and, yes, eventually, the White House changed,” he said to loud applause.
And Obama made only oblique references to some of the issues that divide Americans on race today.
“To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency. Whether it’s by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all in the criminal justice system and not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails, it requires vigilance,” Obama said, avoiding any more explicit mention of the controversial Republicans-backed voter ID laws that many of the speakers before the president had made reference to.
The president, in the weeks leading up to Wednesday, had repeatedly emphasized in interviews that the March on Washington in 1963 had been billed as a march for “jobs and freedom.” And he made the case repeatedly on Wednesday that Americans needed to focus on the first part as much as the second.
“What King was describing has been the dream of every American. It’s what’s lured for centuries new arrivals to our shores. And it’s along this second dimension of economic opportunity, the chance through honest toil to advance one’s station in life, that the goals of 50 years ago have fallen most short,” the president said.