Mary Mitchell: The times have changed — but the fight remains the same
By MARY MITCHELL August 28, 2013 6:48PM
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during the Let Freedom Ring ceremony on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday in Washington, D.C. The event was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. | Alex Wong~Getty Images
Updated: September 30, 2013 2:08PM
In 1963, the March on Washington was about black people fighting for the freedoms that the rest of America took for granted.
White women had already won the right to vote. Americans with disabilities were not segregated in public accommodations.
As for gay rights, Bayard Rustin, the trusted adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., and one of the strategists behind the historic March on Washington, was kept behind the scenes because of his sexual preference. Frankly, no one came to Washington to march for any of these groups.
They came to Washington because 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, black people were suffering as King noted in his “I Have A Dream” speech:
“[T]he life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
On Wednesday, the nation’s first black president stood in the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial and tried to capture the spirit of that moment in a soaring speech that walked a fine political line.
“They came by the thousands from every corner of our country, men and women, young and old, blacks who longed for freedom and whites who could no longer accept freedom for themselves while witnessing the subjugation of others,” President Barack Obama said at the outset of his remarks.
Obviously, there was no way that Obama, whose oratory skills are unmatched, could measure up to the iconic “I Have A Dream” speech that King delivered before the largest crowd that had ever gathered at that time on the National Mall.
Even King could not measure up to the task of piercing hearts hardened by centuries of bigotry and racial hatred.
In recent interviews, Clarence Jones, a King adviser who worked on the speech, said King skipped entire paragraphs of his prepared text before setting it aside and speaking from his heart.
“Tell ’em about the dream, Martin,’ ” Mahalia Jackson, the famous gospel singer, supposedly told King.
However it happened, the spirit took over and Martin’s words inspired a nation.
Constrained by politics, Obama gave a less memorable speech.
But he drew parallels between the civil rights struggles of our past and the battles that are still being fought today.
“[W]e would dishonor those heroes . . . to suggest that work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own,” he said.
Obama touched on the recurring themes mentioned by civil rights leaders at the 50th anniversary — the mass incarceration of young black and brown males, and the new challenges to the Voting Rights Act.
“To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency. Whether by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote, or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all, and the criminal justice system is not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails, it requires vigilance,” he said.
But the president also was careful to craft remarks that were inconclusive.
For instance, while noting that black unemployment has “remained almost twice as high as white unemployment,” Obama also mentioned that “Latino unemployment” was close behind.
“The gap in wealth between the races has not lessened, it’s grown. And as President [Bill] Clinton indicated, the position of all working Americans, regardless of color, has eroded, making the dream Dr. King described even more elusive,” the president said.
“The test was not, and never has been, whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many — for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call — this remains our great unfinished business,” he said.
The times have changed.
But the fight remains the same.