(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.
"On the battlefield of justice, men and women without wealth, title or fame would liberate us all," observed Obama. The president criticized those who "dismiss the magnitude of progress" as "dishonoring the courage" of martyrs including Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and King.
Obama candidly spoke of the need for vigilance to challenge racial discrimination in the criminal-justice system and new barriers to voting. This was the most powerful part of the speech, since the president has, through Attorney General Eric Holder, connected a passionate call for justice with concrete policy. The Justice Department's efforts to repeal voter-ID laws and wind down the war on drugs' racist impact on black incarceration offer an example of substance matching symbolism.
Obama conceded that, despite significant advances, black unemployment has grown since the march, "even as corporate profits soar." What the president called the "shadow of poverty" continues to negatively shape the life chances of millions of African Americans a half-century after King's "I Have a Dream" speech. But rather than offer to launch a new war on poverty or outline a new vision of a Great Society on the anniversary of King's iconic speech, the president remained silent about how to bridge the yawning disparity between the rich and the poor.
"We shouldn't fool ourselves; this task will not be easy," admitted the president. Obama cited growing economic inequality as the primary threat to fulfilling the promise of democracy envisioned in 1963.
Where Is the Government Action?
The president followed his critique of proliferating corporate power and the ignoring of the poor by chastising the tendency for "poverty to be an excuse for not parenting." This was an unfortunate aside, since it focused on individual behavior and, in the process, continued to pathologize black poverty. Poverty is a result of institutional and system inequality, and the sooner Obama realizes this fact, the closer we will come to formulating policy proposals and identifying government actions to address it (such as signing an executive order increasing the minimum wage of federal contract workers).
A nation rife with political, racial and economic divisions requires "courage" to form coalitions based as much on empathy as on politics. Young people "unconstrained by fear" helped to change America, said Obama. That same creative energy and thirst for freedom is what our contemporary moment requires.
Obama concluded his speech by describing Americans who raise their kids, serve their country and fight to end poverty and oppression as continuing the march. "That's the lesson of our past," said Obama, "in that in the face of impossible odds, our country can be changed."
The themes outlined in Obama's speech were appropriate, but the speech failed to offer up or edge toward any major public-policy proposals, so in that sense it represents a missed opportunity. His acknowledgment of the realities of institutional racism is important but not enough.
The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington offers the perfect moment for the kind of creative risks and strategic gambles that allowed the original march not only to be organized but also to flourish as a defining moment in American history. The president's speech correctly identified the march as a transformative moment in world history whose reverberation transcended color and reached beyond superficial geographical boundaries.
But the demonstrators came to the nation's capital in 1963 demanding new policies and laws to promote social justice. Without the policy and legislative changes that followed, the march would have rung hollow and would not be remembered today.
The dream outlined by King and given force by millions of protesters around the nation 50 summers ago required political action. Our own era requires no less. Moreover, presidents don't have to dream — they can act with the full authority of the executive branch of government. It's time for Obama not just to praise the dreamer but to heed his words by enacting bold policy measures and executive orders that will finally, as King proclaimed 50 years ago, "make real the promise of democracy."
Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. Follow him on Twitter. The center will convene a National Dialogue on Race Day on Sept. 12, 2013, and invites all to join in the conversation. Follow the center on Twitter.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.