Perhaps irony seemed more evident than the lecturing reflection in President Obama’s highly anticipated 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington speech this past Wednesday. Fifty years ago, as the President noted, was the urgency of now; fifty years later was the urgency of organizers simply eager to fill the National Mall for mass wax nostalgic. It’s hard to tell if the message of today connects with the message of yesteryear, hard to say if the collection of grievances and issues splattered about in oratory and protest signs this past week really struck any sort of nerve.
Fifty years ago, one man’s speech seemed to encapsulate the mission and then almost immediately set in motion a number of tangible political and policy accomplishments that followed shortly thereafter. Fifty years later, admittedly, fell a little flat and thoughts on it much more mixed. There aren’t any marching orders. Nothing that really snapped the audience to attention. There is no specific mission, no special social contract struck with the audience to push forward with haste.
And as much as the President and others this week attempted to capture at least a hint of the spirit from 1963, it all appeared somewhat subdued in comparison. The orators before the Lincoln Memorial fifty years later were, literally, not as hungry as the folks back then. Fifty years later found the commemoration overrun by VIP sections, some fairly expensive clothing and cause célèbre. In some respects, that’s what we wanted: Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream attained. In other respects, there are now more – statistically – left out than before. The sprint of 1963 may have slowed down to a jogging pace in 2013.
It is, of course, a special treat to have the nation’s first Black president deliver a keynote speech memorializing the tipping point of the Civil Rights Movement. But, he’s as beset by partisan polarization and Washington dysfunction as King was by police batons and fire hoses. Back then, King was vilified by segregationists, politicians and an FBI director as a destabilizing Communist; today, Obama is still viewed by a cool quarter of the population as something foreign and not of this place. For years since his election, there was no end to the baseless debate on the legitimacy of his birth certificate with many white conservatives and some Republican elected officials still fanning the flames. When tea party birthers discover that one of their very own, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), was indeed born in Canada, the silence is deafening. And so the president giving Wednesday’s speech on racial reconciliation is still peppered with the insults of what we can now confirm is outright bigotry. This was never really about the birth certificate. If it was the White guy from Canada should be getting way more grief than the Black guy who can legitimately claim this country as home. But, he’s not and the birthers’ cover is completely blown.
Obviously, the stakes much higher back then than they are now. Yet, stakes are still high, the gap – as you’ve already heard – still quite wide. Wednesday’s damp and drizzly weather on the Mall seemed suited for the moment. Anyone expecting a road map from the president walked away sorely disappointed unless platitudes is your thing. This speech was designed for the sake of giving a speech, quietly mired in resignation and doused in forgettable chocolate. “[W]e would dishonor those heroes, as well, to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own,” said the president.
But, as we waited for him to start bending it, that arc stood still. There were no big announcements, no new policy initiatives, no grand opening for an Executive Order. Just a lot of what we already knew: President Obama is a pretty remarkable and smart brother who sometimes gives damn good speeches (although the sermonic cadence at certain points could feel, at times, forced). It was the speech we had to watch and should have made our kids listen to.
There are two types of speeches: there are speeches that say things and there are speeches that do things. The president’s former campaign hand David Plouffe tweeted on Wednesday on the “Historic moment 5 yrs ago made more so by falling on anniversary of the March.” But, five years ago was probably more historic than five years later. At least people left Denver’s Mile High Stadium clear on the objective and equally clear on how they would reach it. Not so five years later. We got the history lesson and, perhaps, curiously naïve reminders from some of the more successful beneficiaries.
We look to presidents to set tone, agenda and pathway. Maybe we shouldn’t expect Obama to build a yellow brick road – but, that hasn’t stopped presidents before him, now has it? What’s wrong with expecting that? Some argue that there is a lack of big-think excitement afflicting the American political consciousness. Hoover dams, New Deals and trips to the moon are only specks in the rear view mirror. Everything is rather nuanced and mild – or, at least the way the Obama White House communicates it … or the way Republicans and a crowded media complex won’t let it communicate. Affordable Care Act, stimulus package, Common Core standards, etc. – these are muted manifestations of the Obama long game. Maybe he’s excited about it. But, are we?
A milestone 50th anniversary celebration marking the day it all changed would have been an interesting opportunity to act rather than to talk in that tradition. While a lot of love was on display, no down payments on a next step followed and folks may have walked away feeling a bit empty handed.
CHARLES D. ELLISON is UPTOWN Magazine’s Chief Political Correspondent and Washington Correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune. He is a contributor for SiriusXM Channel 124 and a veteran political strategist. He can be reached via Twitter @charlesdellison.