Before I sat down to watch President Obama deliver his remarks at the conclusion to Wednesday’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I had a quick 'come to Jesus' moment. I had to brace myself because I wasn’t quite sure which President Obama would show up. Would it be Obama the Candidate, who in 2008 during his first campaign for the Oval Office, delivered what many considered a groundbreaking speech on race, addressing the matter as someone of mixed heritage in the context of political pressure stemming from his ties to controversial clergyman Dr. Jeremiah Wright? Or, perhaps it would be the Obama who congenially invited Skip Gates and a police officer to the White House for a beer and a “teachable moment” following the officer’s arrest of Gates in his own home. My sincere hope was that we would see a continuation of the president who gave an impromptu address on race in front of the country in the wake of the Zimmerman acquittal. That Barack Obama made Black America beam with pride. That at this juncture in history, the president of the United States is a Black man carried with it a significance too great to fully express in this space. While I did not believe the moment was lost on him, nor did I expect its gravity to overcome the president, I wondered if he would again harness all of his gifts at once and seize it in a way that so many were craving.
As he approached the podium, I realized that no amount of eloquence or rousing rhetoric would be able to recapture the spirit of 50 yrs. ago. Dr. Martin Luther King’s brilliance on those steps will forever be unmatched. Rather, history would judge the president on how he used that platform to advance substantive policy initiatives that addressed the needs of Black America. The civil rights struggle has become increasingly inclusive—a logical and worthwhile evolution. The Black community, the foundation of America’s civil rights movement, has formed myriad coalitions with groups who represent causes similar to our own. The president wasted no time getting to this point, as his first reference explicitly to Blacks who attended the march 50 yrs. ago came directly in hand with one about “Whites who could no longer accept freedom for themselves while witnessing the subjugation of others.” His tone was
over inclusionary from the start and he stayed with it throughout, making multiple references to other groups fighting for fairness like gays and immigrants. But, for as much as this day may have been about the big tent of civil rights and overall equality, for most it was still undeniably clear that Black America was more in focus than any other group under that expanding umbrella.
Okay. So, it was seemed that the president understood this (sorta), as his early remarks drew references to many of Dr. King’s speeches, words from Fredrick Douglass, and even southern Baptist preacher rhetoric (in one excerpt immediately following a reference to Japanese internment camps and the Holocaust he noted “that weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”).
“With the few dollars they scrimped from their labor, some bought tickets and boarded buses, even if they couldn't always sit where they wanted to sit…Many had gone to segregated schools and sat at segregated lunch counters, had lived in towns where they couldn't vote, in cities where their votes didn't matter…Willingly, they went to jail to protest unjust laws, their cells swelling with the sound of freedom songs. A lifetime of indignities had taught them that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us. They had learned through hard experience what Frederick Douglas once taught: that freedom is not given; it must be won through struggle and discipline, persistence and faith.”
Early in his speech, the president swiftly bobbed and weaved his way through fantastic and stirring prose, much like a fighter in the first few rounds, with fresh legs and savvy. “That was the spirit they brought here that day…[T]hat was the spirit that they carried with them like a torch back to their cities and their neighborhoods, that steady flame of conscience and courage that would sustain them through the campaigns to come, through boycotts and voter registration drives and smaller marches, far from the spotlight, through the loss of four little girls in Birmingham…[T]hrough setbacks and heartbreaks and gnawing doubt, that flame of justice flickered and never died.”
Still, as he seemed to enter his zone, I waited for him to hit America (and hit them hard) with concrete demands for substantive legislation related to jobs (emphasizing his recent jobs tour that he has traversed the country promoting) and economics. What I got was a speech that developed into an appeal to middle class America, consistently and deliberately avoiding any solitary reference to Blacks alone, and eerily reminiscent of a thinly veiled “I’m the president of all Americans, not just Black America.”
“For over a decade, working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate. Even as corporate profits soar, even as the pay of a fortunate few explodes, inequality has steadily risen over the decades. Upward mobility has become harder…[W]e must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many Blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life.”
Even in the midst of acknowledging the ills of police brutality, corporate greed, and references to Wall St.’s malfeasance, he was careful to spread a message of promise and hope to all Americans, but reserved his usual call to the carpet almost exclusively for Black America.
“…those who benefit from an unjust status quo resisted any government efforts to give working families a fair deal… We'd be told that growing inequality was the price for a growing economy, a measure of the free market — that greed was good… Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse- making for criminal behavior…[w]hat had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself. All of that history is how progress stalled.”
In the same breath that he acknowledged the constraints and problems which cause the disease of oppression, he also came dangerously close to blaming the victim for displaying symptoms of being oppressed.
Some argued that this was not the time to delve heavy into policy or play politics. I believed that this was a chance for the president to deliver a State of the Union address for Black America, complete with policy initiatives intended to help better realize Dr. King’s Dream. I would like to have heard him speak to Congress and put the pressure on them in front of the country. At a time where so many have sought to co-opt and politically sanitize the legacy of MLK, to hear initiatives which would have truly reflected MLK’s ideology would have been welcome. That is not to say that the president’s failure to articulate clear policy yesterday absolves us from personal responsibility within our homes or communities; it is to say that we are not one trick ponies, incapable of doing both at the same time. It is not an “either/or” conversation, as the two are not mutually exclusive. We have an obligation to position ourselves as best we can to take advantage of whatever substantive gains might come from first from our state and local legislatures and second from Washington.
When I sat down, I wondered whether I would hear from Obama the Candidate, Obama the president, or someone altogether different. For as non-political as he may have tried to be, this was some hybrid of all three, Obama-Lite: the Politician, Master of Inclusion and the Unoffending. The issue isn’t that he spoke to all of America. The issue is that he spoke in an imbalanced tone of nostalgia and rhetoric without offering much of substance. I do not debate that he delivered a good speech. It struck me in places and moved me in others. However, pizza, cotton candy, and chocolate are all good going down, despite not leaving much in the way of nutritional value. I tuned in to the president’s speech hoping for healthy sustenance.
Disappointingly, that never actually came.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a former King's County (Brooklyn, NY) prosecutor and a federal trial attorney specializing in civil rights. Follow him on Twitter: @CFColemanJr