(The Root) — President Barack Obama’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington forcefully articulated an expansive vision of economic justice and racial equality but stopped short of concrete policy proposals needed to turn words into deeds.
“Five decades ago today, Americans came to this honored place to lay claim to a promise made at our founding,” Obama began. The president recounted the multicultural composition of demonstrators, who came by planes, buses and trains. In the “shadow of the Great Emancipator,” more than a quarter of million Americans gathered to demand nothing less than the fundamental transformation of American democracy.
“But we would do well to remember that day also belonged to ordinary people whose names never appeared in history books and never got on TV,” Obama continued. The president stressed the participation of anonymous black and white citizens who supported freedom’s cause but would never be celebrated.
Obama quoted Frederick Douglass’ axiom that “freedom is not just given” but is the byproduct of social and political struggle. This was an important part of the speech, especially since Douglass stands out as the most important black activist of the antebellum era, one who met with Abraham Lincoln three times and remained both a supporter and critic of the president.
But where were the specifics that would have truly honored the March on Washington? The 250,000 people who gathered 50 years ago were looking for specific solutions, not just soaring rhetoric. Where was the president’s promise to sign a series of executive orders that would focus on anti-poverty efforts or increase access to higher education? Or governmental action that perhaps could ease the transition of ex-offenders back into communities or promote jobs programs, especially in economically devastated urban and rural communities?
Indeed, parts of the speech sounded like a roll call of the pivotal events of the civil rights era: demonstrations, violence, arrests, the passage of civil rights and voting-rights legislation. While this acknowledgment is crucially important to educate a new generation of Americans about the sacrifice that was required to end Jim Crow, secure voting rights and transform the nation, it can also create a mythology of the past that prevents us from moving forward. From this perspective, the civil rights generation, led by Martin Luther King Jr., appears so extraordinary and special as to induce fear and paralysis over the possibility of ever matching or exceeding its success and achievements.
The Limits of Progress
“Because they kept marching, America changed,” said Obama. “Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, a voting-rights law was signed. Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and yes, eventually the White House changed.”
But it’s worth asking the question in our own time: How much has actually changed? Certainly, there are more black elected officials than ever, most notably the president. And the numbers of black entertainers, celebrities and entrepreneurs dwarf those that existed in 1963. Yet black faces in higher places were only part of the dream advocated at the March on Washington.
The bad news about the state of black America remains stunning. There are more black Americans in jail today than 50 years ago. The black unemployment rate is higher, and the number of blacks living in poverty remains overwhelming. The aesthetics of American democracy have changed enough to include a black president. This victory, however, is not enough to hide the way in which institutional racism and its reverberations within poverty, violence, segregation, incarceration and illiteracy continue to proliferate.
The Obamas’ move into the White House offers a compelling portrait of racial progress and change, but underneath this surface is the harsh reality that racial oppression continues — in fact, flourishes — in many parts of American society.