Obama tackles the dream deferred
NEW YORK // Barack Obama sought to define a renewed fight for equality in the United States and warned of new threats to progress as he commemorated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr's historic speech on the struggle for racial justice in America.
Mr Obama spoke from the same spot on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where King gave his I Have A Dream address in 1963 as thousands of people gathered on a cloudy afternoon as hot and humid as the one being remembered.
At 3pm, 50 years to the minute since King's speech, a young girl from the King family rang a bell to mark the milestone, as many Americans across the country did the same.
"Because they marched America became more free and more fair, not just for African-Americans but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, for Cathoolics, Jews and Muslism, for gays for American with disabilities. America changed for you and for me," said Mr Obama
"To secure the gains this country has made requires continued vigilance, not complacency."
In a ceremony of high symbolism, America's first black president connected King's legacy to a renewed push during his second term for legislation addressing racial and economic equality.
Mr Obama sought to frame issues associated with race, such as economic opportunity and inequality, as concerns that broadly affect Americans of all ethnicities and backgrounds. He linked the challenges facing the diverse coalition of voters that helped bring Mr Obama back to office this year.
Earlier, two former presidents from the South shaped deeply by America's civil-rights struggle - Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter - addressed the crowd.
During his five years in office, Mr Obama has worked tirelessly to avoid being perceived primarily as a "black" president, but in his second term has addressed issues of race more freely and yesterday vowed to address the issues of voting rights and criminal justice, which disproportionately affect African-Americans.
Mr Obama's justice department has recently announced its intention to reform minimum sentencing laws for low-level drug offenders and has also taken legal action against the state of texas for repealing the voting rights act.
And last month, the US supreme court struck down parts of the 1965 voting rights act on the grounds that racial equality has been reached.
One hundred years after the abolition of slavery, King spoke before 250,000 people at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, giving a transcendent speech that was crucial to the popular momentum that would force Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act a year later, which lifted restrictions on black voting across the southern US.
In 1968, against a backdrop of souring race relations and urban unrest, a gunman assassinated King as he stood on the balcony of his hotel room in the southern city of Memphis.
"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal'," King said at the time, referencing the US constitution and tying the goals of the civil-rights movement to the ideals of the country's founders and broadening its appeal beyond blacks.
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character."
The sight of Mr Obama, the first black US president, standing on the same steps where King accentuated his movement for racial equality, was rich with triumphant symbolism and for many a powerful index of just how far the country had come in overcoming its history of slavery and racism.
Mr Obama said on Tuesday that King's speech was one of the greatest in American history, and the civil-rights leader was one of the president's role models. In his White House office sits a bust of King.
When he was elected in 2008, Mr Obama seemed the embodiment of King's dream, a president elected on the content of his character, not the colour of his skin, winning a higher percentage of the white vote than the previous two Democratic candidates.
But beyond the progress in racial attitudes that Mr Obama's presidency represents, it is clear that King's is a dream deferred.
"It is obvious today that America has defaulted on the promissory note insofar as her citizens of colour are concerned. Instead of honouring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad cheque, a cheque that has come back marked 'insufficient funds'," King said in 1963, a statement that still resonates.
The poverty rate for African-Americans has remained around three times that of whites since the 1970s, as has the median household income for blacks, which was 59 per cent that of white households in 2011.
Overall household wealth has actually increased in the past 30 years. African-Americans face higher rates of unemployment and incarceration, with nearly 40 per cent of prisoners African-Americans, who only make up 13 per cent of the population.
"The only impediment to realising the creed of We Shall Overcome is the narcotic belief that we already have," the director of the Institute for African-American Studies at the University of Connecticut, Jelani Cobb, wrote in Washington Monthly this year.
Updated: August 29, 2013 04:00 AM