*On the 50th Anniversary of “the greatest demonstration” for social change in the history of America, an American President addressed—with two other American Presidents, or sought try to try to articulate the significance of the moment that confronted the nation on jobs and freedom in search of a legislative remedy to racial injustice. The march was a call on the President to be more active in urging Congress to pass the first meaning civil rights legislation of the 20th Century. It was the turning point in American history. There are some moments in time that can’t be replicated, duplicated or re-enacted. At best, we can commemorate the significance of the time, call for reflection and re-dedicate ourselves to the advancement of the cause.
At the time, the 1963 march was perceived as a radical engagement that wasn’t supported by then President Kennedy. The expectation was disorder and violent dissent. What they saw instead was the dignity and determination of a people put on display. The President had no choice but to push forward on civil rights legislation and it cost him his life. His successor, President Lyndon Johnson, responded by calling on Congress to pass civil rights legislation-in honor of our slain President. It was the most volatile time for America in the 20th Century.
What made it volatile was that there was a convergence between social radicalism, racial radicalism and government complacency. Social “radicals” (and King was considered a radical and controversial in his stand on direct action non-violent protests and the subsequent war in Viet Nam), racial radicals (pro-segregationists) and complicit governments (that sought to ignore civil rights on the federal level and fight civil rights on state and local levels) could no longer maintain the status quo politics of socio-political injustice and economic inequality. The time had come to overcome—or at least try to overcome—the challenges of more than a half century oppressive racism. It has been a test that the country has, by and large, failed to achieve. The racial disparity gap in America is larger, in terms of education and wealth, than it was 50 years ago.
A half century after the call was made to fulfill the promise of equality in 1963, thousands came to Washington, including myself, to commemorate the moment that changed the nation. Not just to commemorate a moment in time but to assess the realities of the time. It was a sobering reality that as far as we have come in America, we still have a long way to go—and more distressing, many of the issues we talked about 50 years ago—we are still talking about today. Issues like voting, unemployment and freedom to move about society as we please without fear of prosecution or deadly assault. Four days later, a second commemoration and “Call to Freedom” was held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
This time, instead of the President watching the program from the White House, the President opted to participate in the commemoration celebration—positioning himself to lead the call. A bold move if President Obama intends to live up to this challenge. A President activist?
T.S. Eliot once said, “There is no greater heresy than to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” President Obama speaking on the day of the half century commemoration of the March On Washington was the right thing to do. But did he do it for the wrong reason? Does he intend to change the reality of the entrenched societal disparities that have been rooted and exacerbated by race for 150 years now—since the Emancipation Proclamation? Unlike A. Phillip Randolph, Dr. King, John Lewis and others who had to call on a President to help overcome the challenges of racism, repression and oppression, President Obama is a President that, with a stroke of a pen, can change the realities of millions of Americans of all hues—from student loan debt forgiveness to foreclosure scandal justice and other remedies to destabilization of the poor and disenfranchised to bring about social and economic equity. He can, at least, start the ball rolling.
I believe there have been unreasonable expectations put on President Obama, being the first black President, to carry the burdens of the race and the legacy of King. He has often taken on the “King persona” but there is a different King-sian persona about him. He had the courage to dream and tenacity to follow his dream on the pathway cleared for him by King.
However, he is not an activist and never has been. He is a master politician, a compassionate public servant and savvy diplomat. His pragmatism and diplomacy (non-positions or soft positions) on the tough issues in our society (race, sexuality, immigration), crafted his pathway to the presidency. The 21st Century dilemmas of the class separation, the expansion of the prison industrial complex, the challenge to implementing health care reform only complicate the challenges of declining education and rising unemployment, irreverent social media and increasing national security concerns that threaten privacy and civility.
It would be wrong for President Obama to have stood on the steps of Lincoln Monument, to have “styled and profiled,” reflecting and reminiscing and calling on Congress—or somebody else to do something he, himself, has the power to do. President Obama can’t act like he doesn’t have the power to bring certain things into reality. He does. There is no greater supporter of President Obama than I, but this is a defining moment in the Obama presidency for me.
It is now time to call on our President to do something great. This is the moment. This is his “King moment” that we’ve longed to see. President Obama must do something GREAT—something that will be recalled fifty years from now by future generations.
When President Obama spoke on August 28, 2013, fifty years after Dr. King said “Let Freedom Ring…,” the right thing for President Obama to do was be the first to ring the bell. Time will tell if President Obama’s appearance on the steps on the Lincoln Memorial was an effort to bend the “arc of the universe” toward justice quicker than it has bent over the past few decades. Or did he just recollect on the generation that made it possible for freedom to ring all the way into the White House where he now resides.
President Obama speaking on the 50th Anniversary of the March On Washington was the right thing to do, but was it for the right reason to bring about real change into partial reality for those who have waited the longest? How will history reflect this moment for a President who sought to follow the lead of a King? President Obama has to be more than just a beneficiary.
Will his legacy for civil rights and social change be as lasting as King’s?
I hope so.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist and author of, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21 Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com and on Twitter at @DrAnthonySamad.