It is a daunting task for anyone to follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, particularly for President Obama, who is often cited as a primary embodiment of that vision.
That’s part of what made taking stock of Wednesday’s commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington intriguing. It’s all about expectations; in this case, the expectations for the president’s speech and the expectations of where we would be as a society in 2013.
First, let’s tackle the easy issue. Despite injecting a bit of evangelical fire, President Obama’s speech was hardly his best work. It was efficient and workmanlike, not necessarily a bad thing considering that the original march was primarily about jobs and economic opportunity. The takeaway was clear, though—because they marched, our nation was changed.
Perhaps the president’s best moment was when he referenced King’s words by saying, “The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.”
The call to action and the maintaining of vigilance has been sounded repeatedly over the past few days. The major difference this time is the deliverer of the message—the first African-American president of the United States, the most powerful human being on the planet—acknowledged that the gains in civil rights made over the last 50 years are being systematically chipped away. This isn’t King speaking truth to power; this is power personified asking for our help.
The gains have been plentiful but the areas of where there has not been progress are enormous and unacceptable. The richest nation in the world is rapidly being defined as a land of haves versus have nots. There are damaging and ever-widening gaps of every sort: education, employment, achievement, salary, etc.
A debate has raged on about the president’s role in addressing these issues. Critics say his policy doesn’t match his rhetoric. For example, the crippling blow his administration has dealt Historically Black Colleges and Universities by dramatically and suddenly tightening qualifications for Parent Plus Loans does not seem befitting of a president committed to equal access to higher education. Defenders cite the success in heading off a potential national financial collapse and the prosecution of wars in the face of withering political obstruction.
Regardless, there is little to dispute that we as a society are having a difficult time figuring out how to go about fulfilling King’s dream. In reality, many then and now are only giving lip service to embracing the dream.
To President Obama’s right at the Lincoln Memorial was a bell from the church in Birmingham, Ala., that was bombed three weeks after the 1963 March on Washington. That bell and others around the nation were rung at 3 p.m. to symbolize the sacrifices made in the Civil Rights Movement.
That should be a call to march again. The question is will we step up?
G.E. Branch III is Online Editor at Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.