Blogging the Beltway: Unapologetically political, the ceremony didn't shy away from King's more radical legacy.
About 20 minutes before he gave remarks at the long-awaited dedication ceremony for the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial today, President Barack Obama received a private tour of the monument.
Walking hand in hand with daughters Sasha and Malia, he scaled the length of the memorial's curved inscription wall, reading quotes from some of King's most memorable speeches and writings. After scrutinizing the 30-foot sculpture of King's likeness at the memorial's heart, Obama turned to tour mates Martin Luther King III and Bernice King, children of the late civil rights leader. He asked, "Are you all happy with it?" They responded in the affirmative.
The president didn't just take in the monument; he also left some things behind. In the memorial's time capsule, a large silver box to be buried at the site, he dropped in signed copies of two of his speeches. One, his January 2009 Inauguration Day speech. The other, his remarks at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, delivered on Aug. 28, 2008 -- 45 years after the March on Washington, where King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.
Finally, the president left a message tying the struggle of the civil rights movement to the present day. "We forget now, but during his life, Dr. King wasn't always considered a unifying figure," Obama told thousands of spectators and dignitaries, after first illuminating the victories that King helped usher. "Even after rising to prominence, even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King was vilified by many, denounced as a rabble-rouser and an agitator, a communist and a radical. He was even attacked by his own people, by those who felt he was going too fast or those who felt he was going too slow."
Bringing the Past to the Present
The president said he brought up King's controversial and hard-won progress because the movement's work is not yet complete. It's a sentiment all the more apparent in the wake of the economic crisis, rising poverty, crumbling schools, inadequate health care and persistent violence, he said. With that, the president encouraged the audience to draw strength from earlier struggles.
"Change has never been simple, or without controversy." Obama continued. "Change depends on persistence. Change requires determination. It took a full decade before the moral guidance of Brown v. Board of Education was translated into the enforcement measures of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but those 10 long years did not lead Dr. King to give up. He kept on pushing, he kept on speaking, he kept on marching until change finally came."
Putting that approach into the modern-day context, he said that Americans today must likewise tirelessly strive for better:
"As we think about all the work that we must do -- rebuilding an economy that can compete on a global stage, and fixing our schools so that every child -- not just some, but every child -- gets a world-class education, and making sure that our health care system is affordable and accessible to all, and that our economic system is one in which everybody gets a fair shake and everybody does their fair share, let us not be trapped by 'what is.' We can't be discouraged by 'what is.' We've got to keep pushing for what 'ought to be.' "
From my vantage point, on the forecourt of the memorial with the White House press pool and about 500 guests -- including Attorney General Eric Holder, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Rep. Karen Bass, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson -- the response to the ceremony was enthusiastic but slightly reserved.
But at a larger stage for the thousands who flocked to the National Mall for the event, The Root witnessed a response that was more emotional. During the president's speech, which visitors could see on two jumbo screens flanking the stage, chants of "four more years" erupted from the crowd. As the president and first lady joined a choir in singing "We Shall Overcome," viewers sang along with strength and conviction. And when Stevie Wonder brought the ceremony to a jubilant close by singing "Happy Birthday," the crowd sang out and clapped along.
Remembering Dr. King's Lesser-Discussed Teachings
The three-hour dedication program, hosted by PBS NewsHour's Gwen Ifill, included remarks by the King family, Julian Bond and Cicely Tyson, as well as performances by Mary Mary, poet Nikki Giovanni and Aretha Franklin. While the ceremony had its moments of solemn reverence, and joy over having a permanent national tribute to King, much of the tone was brazenly and unapologetically political.
Similar to the president's remarks, Martin Luther King III reflected that his father's struggle for social and economic justice is far from over, citing high unemployment, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, mass incarceration and "regressive tax breaks for the rich while breaking the backs of the poor" as his examples.
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, in surprisingly fiery welcome remarks, used his platform to advocate for D.C. voting rights -- an issue that King himself marched for in the 1960s -- calling taxation without representation "a state of tyranny." He implored the president and Congress to give D.C. residents voting representation.
Sharpton's speech focused on getting out the vote in the 2012 election. After mentioning the Occupy Wall Street protests, he said, "We're going to occupy the voting booth. We're going to take in those who stand for justice and retire those who stand in the way."
Even journalist Dan Rather jumped on his soapbox about "the corporatization and politicization of the news," bemoaning news corporations for colluding with special-interest groups and funders instead of serving the interests of the people.
Speaker after speaker, from Marian Wright Edelman to Rep. John Lewis, did not merely commemorate the past. Hardly anyone heralded the Disney-fied, nonthreatening image of King often used to define him, focusing instead on his teachings against war and the wealth gap, and his calls for radical, nonviolent dissent as the path for change -- then and now. All this set against the backdrop of his permanent monument on the National Mall made for a striking, historic moment.
"And that is why he belongs on this Mall --- because he saw what we might become," Obama said in closing. "That is why Dr. King was so quintessentially American -- because for all the hardships we've endured, for all our sometimes tragic history, ours is a story of optimism and achievement and constant striving that is unique upon this Earth."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.
Blogging the Beltway: A memorial official talks post-hurricane plans, donations and the politically charged new date.
After a historic buildup to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial dedication last August -- a week of poignant events, and numerous reflections on the 15 years of work that went into it -- the plan was scrapped in the wake of Hurricane Irene. Rescheduled for the morning of Oct. 16, the new dedication day has been scaled back but will still be packed with entertainers and prominent speakers.
Hosted by PBS NewsHour's Gwen Ifill (and preceded by an hour of musical selections and readings, emceed by journalist Roland Martin), the program will feature President Barack Obama, Nikki Giovanni, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Rep. John Lewis, Aretha Franklin, Cicely Tyson, Julian Bond, Jesse Jackson, Jennifer Holliday, Joseph Lowery and Mary Mary. The dedication is free and open to the public (no tickets required).
Harry Johnson Sr., president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation, spoke with The Root about last summer's disappointing weather report, who made last-minute memorial donations and why there should be no controversy around holding the dedication on the anniversary of the Million Man March.
The Root: In August it looked like you were trying to hold on as long as you could, planning to proceed with the dedication "rain or shine." What convinced you to finally postpone it?
Harry Johnson: I was watching the weather pattern very carefully. Hurricanes can do a lot of things -- they can turn at a moment's notice, for example, and go away from you. The first bit of news we heard was that it was turning eastward. That was a good sign because it meant that we'd get very little rain, and some wind that would pass over. Throughout the day, however, the news changed, and it was turning westward.
My biggest concern was the wind. We had 27,500 chairs out there, portable bathrooms, bike racks and a stage that was several stories tall. Just coming off of the Indiana State Fair, at which a stage collapsed, I did not want to put anyone in harm's way.
Did it hurt to make the decision? Yes. But it was the right decision to make.
TR: Why did you choose Oct. 16 as the rescheduled date -- was it purposely selected to coincide with the anniversary of the Million Man March?
HJ: That was a coincidence. We were trying to get a date when President Obama was available, along with Cabinet members who are participating. This was the best date that we had.
TR: Can you tell us about the gala on Saturday night, preceding the dedication?
HJ: The gala's really just a thank-you, if you will, to folks who have helped build the memorial: people who donated, people behind the history of how it got started and people who helped to literally build it. It has been trimmed down a bit from the last time. We were going to do 5,000 at a seated dinner; now we're doing 2,400.
TR: In August, the memorial was $6 million short of its $120 million goal. Have more donations rolled in since then to narrow the funding gap?
HJ: Yes. Right now we're at about $117 million, so we're $3 million short. We had another million dollars come in from Boeing, and Major League Baseball donated a million dollars.
TR: Have there been any new celebrity donors?
TR: There will be several hours of programming on the day of the dedication. What can people expect?
HJ: Our "Morning Joy" program begins at 8 o'clock on Sunday morning, so you won't hear a lot of joking and all that, but there will be gospel, poems and sincere words from various people. The actual dedication program starts at 9 a.m., with people giving readings and remarks. The historic Ebenezer Baptist Church choir will sing, as well as the Dupont Chemical Co. choir. People can expect to see a lot of reverence.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.
Blogging the Beltway: The congressman says he wasn't booed by protesters -- but if he were, he would understand.
This month Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) was the first member of Congress to visit the Occupy Wall Street protest -- but contrary to some reports, he says that he was not booed out of the place. The jeers from the crowd, Rangel told The Root, were directed instead at a lone heckler who interrupted his speech supporting the movement.
The Harlem lawmaker also said that the voice of a frustrated constituency -- even if it's just to say, "I'm mad as hell" -- is welcome and necessary for Congress to act on unemployment, foreclosure and the dissolving middle class. Rangel spoke with us about what he sees as Occupy Wall Street's potential and why he wants to focus on what legislators can do now, instead of evaluating "whether [Democrats] did enough" in the last Congress.
The Root: Why did you decide to visit the Occupy Wall Street demonstration?
Charles Rangel: I believe they're symbolic of the frustration and pain that people are feeling all over the country. I was very surprised, but very pleased, that this group of people just came out. I don't really think that they have to have any solutions for the problem. It reminds me of the movie Network, where the guy just yells out his window, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"
I was planning to be down there with Grandmothers Against the War, who I meet with every year. And I did speak. There was one heckler. It never entered my mind that the crowd was booing me. It was my impression, as well as Charles Barron, who's a city councilman, that they were booing the heckler.
TR: Did you anticipate, though, that your presence would perhaps not be appreciated by some protesters?
CR: I'm a part of the federal government. I and other public officials -- Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer -- have expressed support for Occupy Wall Street. And although we're saying, "I'm with you," we are a part of the damn problem. People should not have to decide who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. They should just call on all of us to get the job done.
TR: What do you hope to see come out of Occupy Wall Street? You say they don't have to offer solutions, so what do you think the potential is?
CR: They believe that the top 1 percent has abused their financial powers at the expense of the 99 percent. And if they believe that Congress hasn't done their job, then I don't think they have to wait until 2012. They should call up their members of Congress, their state representatives and city councilmember and say, "You guys are supposed to come up with the answers -- what do we do next?"
If they keep doing that, then [officials would] know that their seats are in jeopardy unless they get something passed. I see the only solution to this being a legislative one. I see coming out of this a coordinated effort to pinpoint who is responsible for doing something to get our people back to work.
TR: From a legislative perspective, what have you been doing to address these frustrations?
CR: This Congress is like no other that I've been in in over 40 years. The partisanship here is where a certain group of people are not out to beat the other party, but they're out to get rid of the president. They have admitted that their primary political responsibility was not a balanced budget or economic growth, but to get rid of Obama.
Having said that, the question has to be whether they would want to get rid of Obama at the expense of losing their seats. I don't believe that America really believes that someone should die if they don't have health care. I don't believe that America thinks that we should ridicule gays that have fought in the war. I don't believe that America's proud of how many people a governor has executed.
But these spokespeople have claimed to speak on their behalf. If we had these protesters call up their representatives to say what they believe, I really think they would get a response. These protesters are doing more than anyone else that I can think of.
TR: But people are not only frustrated by the gridlock in this current Congress. They're also disappointed that the last one didn't challenge the financial industry's dominance over our economic system. How do you defend the job that Democrats did when they just had a strong majority in Congress?
CR: I don't think anybody can retroactively do anything. What could have happened or didn't happen or who was in charge before ... we could go back to slavery and see whether or not any particular group did enough. I'm saying that we're dealing now with this particular protest and what they have the power to do now.
There is an election in 2012. The real question is: Have the president and the Republicans started the election now in order to have the issues be decided by two people? The people need to say that we can't wait until November 2012, and start pushing on the policymakers now. I don't really see how relevant it is to explore what could have happened when we're dealing with a crisis right now.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.
Amid fallout over Solyndra, doubters question Obama's green-energy agenda. Majora Carter weighs in.
Another hot topic at President Obama's news conference this week, despite his best efforts to focus on the jobs bill, was solar panel manufacturer Solyndra. Last month the company, which in 2009 received a $535 million federal loan, declared bankruptcy. Yet the president had emphatically lauded Solyndra as a model for government investment in clean energy, visiting its California headquarters as part of his 2010 "Main Street Tour."
Behind the scenes, administration officials were warned about the shaky standing of Solyndra, which made solar panels without silicon. The business floundered when silicon prices dropped sharply. Democratic members of the House energy subcommittee, which is now investigating the company's bankruptcy (along with another investigation by the Treasury Department inspector general into the Solyndra loan, and a fraud investigation into Solyndra by the FBI), released emails that showed the concern.
In a 2010 email to White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, Steve Westly, a former California state controller and green venture capitalist, wrote, "Many of us believe the company's cost structure will make it difficult for them to survive long term." A staffer from the Office of Management and Budget wrote that "bad days are coming."
A report by the Energy Department's inspector general cautioned that the agency hadn't fully developed regulations needed to manage the loan program -- created in 2005 under President George W. Bush -- that provided funds for Solyndra. The Obama administration, however, repeatedly downplayed the concerns.
At a White House press conference on Thursday, the president gave his explanation for supporting the company despite the alarms over its vetting and viability:
We knew from the start that the loan guarantee program was going to entail some risk, by definition ... The overall portfolio has been successful. It has allowed us to help companies, for example, start advanced battery manufacturing here in the United States. It's helped create jobs. There were going to be some companies that did not work out; Solyndra was one of them ... And of course there were going to be debates internally when you're dealing with something as complicated as this.
Asked whether his administration also ignored the warnings out of eagerness for his clean-energy "Win the Future" agenda to succeed, Obama insisted that was not a factor:
Even for those projects under this loan guarantee program that have ended up being successful, there are those in the marketplace who have been doubtful. So, I mean, there's always going to be a debate about whether this particular approach to this particular technology is going to be successful or not.
All I can say is that the Department of Energy made these decisions based on their best judgment about what would make sense. And the nature of these programs are going to be ones in which for every success, there may be one that does not work out as well. But that's exactly what the loan guarantee program was designed by Congress to do -- was to take bets on these areas where we need to make sure that we're maintaining our lead.
Solar Naysayers Take Aim
On the other hand, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), chair of the House oversight subcommittee investigating Solyndra, said last month that the company's downfall proves that "green energy isn't going to be the solution." Stearns has also argued that we can't compete with China when it comes to renewable energy because China puts far larger subsidies into it. He's not alone. In Solyndra's aftermath, there's growing sentiment that green energy -- and solar in particular -- is a doomed industry.
Majora Carter, president of the Majora Carter Group, a consultancy that specializes in green solutions, doesn't believe the sky is falling. "It's a little alarmist, to say the least, considering that solar is an industry that's certainly taking off in other parts of the world and even here," she told The Root, adding that Solyndra represented just 1.3 percent of the Energy Department's loan-guarantee program portfolio. "There are a lot of other U.S. solar companies that are doing just fine. Why are we not talking about the [federal loan] beneficiaries that did succeed?"
But even though advocates have been talking about the potential of solar energy to take off in this country for decades now, it still makes up only 0.1 percent of our energy consumption. If it were really viable for the United States, why are the numbers so microscopic?
"There's a big difference between talking about it and actually putting resources into it. We have not done that," said Carter. "Reagan could not have been more obvious about where he thought solar should be when he went into the White House and immediately uninstalled the panels that Jimmy Carter had installed there. That was an indication that there weren't going to be the kind of subsidies and support, and research and development, need to go into that industry.
"We haven't been putting serious resources into it now, either. Instead it's been going into oil, gas and coal. It's just not a real comparison. The assumption is that all things are equal, and they clearly are not. The playing field is not level."
Carter is equally dismissive of the idea that we can't compete with China. "There's something to be said about a whole bunch of folks always being able to do it cheaper," she conceded. "But I don't think we should just throw in the towel. Whatever happened to American ingenuity and developing our own market share? We've done it with pretty much everything, and there's no reason why we can't do it. What we haven't done is make the investments in R&D to actually do something -- and maybe even do it better."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.
He sympathized with protesters' angst at a news conference but hedged on prosecuting financial executives.
President Obama again pushed for his jobs bill during a news conference on Thursday, challenging lawmakers who vote against it to explain that decision to American voters. But reporters wanted to know what the president had to say to people who are out of work, foreclosed on or barely above water -- particularly those who have been demonstrating for three weeks now at the Occupy Wall Street protests.
"I think it expresses the frustrations that the American people feel -- that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all throughout the country, all across Main Street, and yet you're still seeing some of the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on abusive practices that got us into this problem in the first place," he said from the White House East Room. "So yes, I think people are frustrated, and the protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works."
He continued that he's been trying to enact the financial regulatory reforms that passed in 2010 -- holding banks and other financial firms accountable for risky activities, and requiring servicers to provide consumers with clear, easy-to-understand information on what they're purchasing, all supervised by a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau -- but said that Republicans have held up its progress. Take, for example, Thursday's vote by Republicans on the Senate Banking Committee against the nomination of Richard Cordray as head of that financial-oversight bureau.
"Republicans have threatened not to confirm him not because of anything he's done but because they want to roll back the whole notion of having a consumer watchdog," Obama continued. "You've got Republican presidential candidates whose main economic policy proposals are 'We'll get rid of the financial reforms that are designed to prevent the abuses that got us into this mess in the first place.'
"That does not make sense to the American people. They are frustrated by it. And they will continue to be frustrated by it until they get a sense that everybody is playing by the same set of rules, and that you're rewarded for responsibility and doing the right thing, as opposed to gaming the system."
Why No Wall Street Prosecutions?
Despite Obama's touting of his attempts at regulatory might, Jake Tapper of ABC News pushed the president to explain the fact that his administration hasn't prosecuted any Wall Street executives who didn't play by the rules. This is where the president's good talk on financial regulation scaled back a bit.
"One of the biggest problems about the collapse of Lehman's and the subsequent financial crisis and the whole subprime lending fiasco is that a lot of that stuff wasn't necessarily illegal; it was just immoral or inappropriate or reckless," he said. "That's exactly why we needed to pass Dodd-Frank, to prohibit some of these practices."
And what about the practices that were illegal?
"The president can't go around saying, 'Prosecute somebody,' " Obama hedged. "But as a general principle, if somebody is engaged in fraudulent actions, they need to be prosecuted. If they violated laws on the books, they need to be prosecuted. And that's the attorney general's job, and I know that Attorney General Holder, U.S. attorneys all across the country, they take that job very seriously."
A Fair-Housing Advocate Responds
Obama's response, particularly on subprime lending not being "necessarily illegal," sounded oddly feeble. After all, this summer a Federal Reserve investigation into Wells Fargo alone found that more than 10,000 borrowers were inappropriately pushed into subprime mortgages or had loan documents falsified by bank personnel. Although the Federal Reserve crafted an $85 million settlement -- and two lawsuits by the cities of Memphis, Tenn., and Baltimore have accused the bank of steering African Americans toward the predatory loans -- so far the Justice Department has not pursued prosecutions.
"There's a degree to which the president's right in saying that some of the practices that proliferated weren't against any laws that existed at the time," Debby Goldberg, special project director for the National Fair Housing Alliance, told The Root. "At the same time, however, we're seeing there may be evidence that some of these practices did violate the fair lending laws. That's the kind of thing that we feel needs to be of high priority in terms of investigation and prosecution where violations are found."
Furthermore, Goldberg noted, even though the president said that his administration takes this seriously, he's had ample time to do more. "It's been a while," she said. "I think this administration has been more aggressive and more open to investigating these problems than the previous administration, but we have yet to see any real remedies come out for homeowners. That needs to happen urgently because every day that goes by means that more people are losing their homes."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.