It is the privilege of every generation to think itself more enlightened than the one that preceded it. Occasionally, this thought is even true.
So in anticipation of President Barack Obama’s speech marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the commentary has been all about how far and how little the nation has traveled since that day in August 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. described his dream of racial and economic equality.
No, blacks are no longer forced to ride in the back of the bus -- but poor Americans who are black are less likely than poor white households to own a car. No, there are no longer blatantly racist literacy tests for black voters -- but attempts to restrict the right to vote persist. Yes, the poverty rate has declined -- but it remains far higher for black Americans than for whites.
And then there is the president himself: the personification, if not the proof, of racial progress in America. Obama’s 29-minute speech will not be remembered the way King’s is. Nevertheless, it was in its own way historic.
Rhetorically speaking, it was vintage Obama, which is to say it was well-wrought and allusive, and the closing litany of “marching” Americans was (forgive us) moving if (forgive us again) pedestrian. Substantively, it was judicious, with a history of the last 50 years that delineated how much the struggle for civil rights has achieved and how far it has yet to go.
What the speech was missing -- this is not quite a criticism, because the occasion demanded the kind of wide-angle focus Obama brought to it -- was specificity.
It’s worth recalling that 1963’s rally was called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The 200,000 or so people who descended on the National Mall had a list of 10 demands, such as a higher minimum wage. King himself said that they had “come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” that the government had defaulted not only on its promises of equality and freedom but also in a more literal sense.
In this regard, it’s the words of Bill Clinton, who also spoke at the ceremony, that synced up with history. The most notable part of Clinton’s speech was his unpoetic call to “implement health-care reform in a way that ends discrimination against those with pre-existing conditions” -- a jarring bit of wonkery in a day full of gauzy rhetoric.
And yet it was there for a reason. The former president is scheduled to give another speech next week on Obama’s health-care law, reprising his role as explainer-in-chief for this administration’s policies, much as he did at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
Obama’s speech certainly matched the occasion; a golden anniversary is a time to pause and reflect. Unlike the possible end of a presidential candidacy or the killing of a young black man, it does not lend itself to passionate oratory. Obama himself acknowledged as much when he said “no one can match King’s brilliance” of 50 years ago.
Part of what will make Obama’s presidency historic is what it achieves. And its signature domestic accomplishment, thus far and probably for all time, is health-care reform.
Fifty years from now, when commentators are filling computer screens with analyses of America’s racial progress in the century since Martin Luther King first described his dream, Barack Obama’s presidency will play a prominent part. Maybe they also will be struck by how it took the U.S. until the second decade of the 21st century to realize that health care also has its place on the arc of social and economic justice.
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