March 2013: What About the Future?

The old guard spent too much time looking back rather than inspiring young idealists.

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President Obama addressing the audience at the March on Washington 50th anniversary (Getty Images)

(The Root) -- As an exercise in further deifying Martin Luther King Jr. and further solidifying an oversimplified version of his legacy, yesterday's 50th-anniversary celebration of the historic March on Washington was a huge success.

But as a means of kindling a new and badly needed social movement that could meaningfully address the unfinished business of persistent and worsening patterns of racial inequality ... well, not so much.

I hate to be the skunk at the picnic, but the long, celebrity-studded ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial left me cold. It was far too much about looking back at King's "I Have a Dream" speech and not nearly enough about looking ahead for new solutions to our current nightmares -- or bolstering the young activists who might help us find them.

Rather than placing the demands of a vibrant grassroots crusade squarely before the nation, as did the original march, it demonstrated how establishmentarian, hidebound and just plain old what passes for the movement these days has become. King, who was only 34 when the original march unfolded a half-century ago, was considered to be an elder statesman by the young firebrands of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality, many of whom were still in their teens. Few speakers who took the podium yesterday were under 45, and many were in their 70s and 80s -- and the ideas they advocated were frequently as old and tired as they are.

As a senior citizen myself, I'm all for honoring the elders. But no broad-based mobilization for social change can hope to succeed without harnessing the energy and passionate commitment of youth. It's time, to borrow a phrase from John F. Kennedy, to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders.

But, incredibly, the organizers of yesterday's ceremony could not find a prominent platform for those who are currently battling on the front lines of social justice. Where were the organizers of the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina, who have been nonviolently fighting right-wing assaults on voting rights? Where were the young protesters who set up camp in Florida's statehouse to demand repeal of that state's controversial "Stand your ground" law and an end to racial profiling? (The Root's Corey Dade reported that several youthful speakers were actually cut from the program at the last minute, a dismaying snub.)

Even the appearance of Barack Obama, our first black president, whose mere presence in the nation's highest office encapsulates the enormous distance we've traveled since 1963, was somehow unsatisfying. As I predicted before yesterday's big to-do unfolded, his speech consisted largely of lofty platitudes rather than specific actions he could take to reduce a now-familiar laundry list of chronic racial inequalities. It served as a reminder of the limitations of Obama's leadership in the face of a racially inspired congressional backlash to which he has yet to find a remedy.

Moreover, the speech contained a jarring passage in which the president gratuitously chastised black Americans for undermining King's dream by indulging in self-defeating riots, excuse-making for criminal behavior and racial recriminations.

"What 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," intoned Obama, "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." It was as through Obama, who has often expressed admiration for Ronald Reagan, were channeling his inner Gipper.

It is, of course, absurd to believe that a choreographed celebration dominated by politicians, entertainers and organizational insiders could give birth to a new movement that must, by definition, be led by the sort of heroic outsider King personified back in 1963. But it was not too much to hope that yesterday's event could provide some tangible support for young idealists who are attempting to honor his legacy by living it instead of encasing it in stone. We had an opportunity to do that yesterday. We blew it.