50 Years After: President Obama's Speech Commemorating the March on Washington


Dr. Martin Luther King's August 28, 1963, speech "I Have a Dream" has become an iconic moment. Before over 250,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial, King captured the hopes of millions of Americans for racial equality in a deeply divided country. Over time, the speech has become a rallying cry throughout the world for freedom movements, from behind the Iron Curtain to South Africa.

But the speech has become more than just a political platform statement. It captured a magic moment when the speaker himself seemed to be transfixed by the event. We now know that King pushed the prepared text aside following Mahalia Jackson's shouted suggestion; "Tell them about the dream, Martin," referring to a previous presentation. The Baptist preacher then became another man, another speaker, and the crowd began swaying with him, shouting "Amen" as if they were listening to a prophet in a Southern church. The rhythm changed, the accent changed; everyone was transfixed. 

How to honor that moment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that followed? How could the first African-American President pay tribute to that moment and all that came before and after to allow him to be elected? Barack Obama has always said that he is not an African-American President, but a President who happens to be African-American. Instead of speaking to over 250,000 activists who were deeply involved in the civil rights movement, President Obama was speaking yesterday to all the American people, and indeed to the world.

The multiracial crowd that gathered in the rain before the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 2013, was not expecting the magic oratory of Dr. King. The special moment when Barack Obama was first elected, when tears streamed down Jesse Jackson's face and those of many others, has long passed. Barack Obama has been elected twice; the United States has its first black Attorney General. Many racial barriers have been broken. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter joined the President on the steps of the Memorial. There was something official about the commemoration, very far from the excitement and energy of 1963.

And yet, President Obama tried to capture the moment. In his speech, he tried to be presidential, reminding the audience that civil and political rights as well as social, economic and cultural rights belong to all Americans, that the economic equality still suffered by blacks haunts people of all backgrounds and ethnic groups. He talked of the sad plight of the disappearing middle class, of the problems of unemployment and the need for new job creation. He talked of his favorite projects such as health insurance and equal, affordable education for all. 

Barack Obama tried to be both the President of the United States leading a deeply divided if not polarized country into the 21st century as well as someone who stands on the shoulders of Dr. King and all the civil rights activists, what is called the Joshua Generation. When he mentioned young students who went to the South in the 1960s, he went out of his way to mention whites as well, like the brutally slain civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney. 

Martin Luther King Jr. has been compared to a prophet. He was able to lift the spirits of millions, to transform and transfix. His speech continues to bring tears, to fill people with hope and optimism. President Obama is a politician. Unlike the preacher or prophet, his job is to lead by enacting policy into law. Martin Luther King's speech and actions led directly to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which legally ended formal segregation in the United States. It was Lyndon Johnson, not Martin Luther King Jr., who pushed through the crucial legislation. 

President Obama's speech yesterday cannot be compared to "I Have a Dream" because he is not a preacher or prophet, but President of the United States. He tried to walk a fine line, as he has done in his entire presidency, between being President and the first African-American President. The speech tried to do both, but the burden and judgment of history will finally be on him as President and his accomplishments. While symbolism is important, it is not determining.

And, finally, ironically, at the same time Barack Obama was extolling Dr. King, he was preparing for violent action against Syria. Dr. King preached rights for all through non-violence. That legacy seemed to have been totally forgotten during the ceremony.


A version of this article will appear in Le Temps August 30, 2013, in French.

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