President Barack Obama will perhaps make the “race” speech of his life on Wednesday, when he hopes to rise to the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.
It’s almost unfair.
What history will remember is not really in our control. Will a phrase connect? Will the media connect “dream” metaphors? Will 50 years later be a time for an “awakening”?
It’s a speech writer’s challenge.
I thought about that as I attended the Saturday part of the March on Washington festivities, where it was all march and some speeches but not “the” speech. Indeed, history will note that the “I have a dream” speech wasn’t even the keynote and that Dr. King wasn’t even the lead organizer of the march that day. Indeed, in the 50 years since King delivered the speech, “I have a dream” has had a life of its own.
At the Saturday rally, I’m sure Eric Holder, Rev. Al, and John Lewis had much to say, but I have to admit, if I wanted to hear speeches, I never would have left the comfort of my living room.
So why did I go 3,000 miles to Washington, to commemorate a march I barely remember as a child?
For a person of color it was important to be there.
And every time I thought it was difficult, I thought of the last 50 years, and told myself, whatever discomfort I experienced on this day by comparison would be nothing.
My train from New York (I was in from California, for a conference) arrived after 9 a.m. Too late to get close to things. I tried, but was unsuccessful getting my press credential. I would be there as a “civilian.” That’s all right, I experienced the march like Roy Robertson, of Columbus, Georgia. We were like hundreds of late arrivals walking outside who were caught up in the temporary fencing around the mall, and ended up walking the perimeter trying to get in. I saw older people w/walkers, and other folks just dealing with the closed off logistics. All of us shut out. Some of us just sat down and watched what we could through a cyclone fence.
Outside looking in. Just like real life.
Speeches? The sound system was poor and only people who were close could hear.
But that’s all right. It wasn’t about the speeches, right? After the speaking part, all the key players lined up at the front of Independence Avenue where I stood with others (see the picture at www.amok.com)
Rev. Al gave us all a photo op, and let her go. And the movement, the mass of people, the march, really began.
There were unions, and racial organizations, and HBCU groups from all over. I stood like a tiny tree as the march came to me.
That’s when I knew I was there.
My buddy Robertson from Columbus, Georgia, who is also a DJ at WOKS–AM and known as the “Breakfast Brother,” was somewhere in it all.
Robertson told me his station played “Southern Soul.”
I asked: “You mean like, James Brown?”
He just smiled.
As the marchers came on, I danced through them in the open space, a carioca step I knew from playing cornerback in high school.
This was a little like bump and run. So at times, the whole thing was more dance than march.
Speeches? I had James Brown in my head. And figured that’s why you go to a march.
“I got the feeling …”
You know the song. “Baby, baby, I got the feeling.”
On Wednesday, if Obama’s rhetoric soars, it’s because he’s captured that feeling.
Emil Guillermo is an award-winning journalist who writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund at www.aaldef.org/blog.