President Obama spoke in D.C. yesterday at the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial dedication, and if you missed the remarks, they’re well worth watching.
Obama’s speech was a fitting tribute to Dr. King and his legacy, but watching the dedication, it seemed the president was drawing some subtle parallels — or perhaps not-so-subtle parallels — between those who complained about the pace of progress a half-century ago, and those who do the same today. “Progress,” the president explained, “was hard.”
“We forget now, but during his life, Dr. King wasn’t always considered a unifying figure. 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; by those who felt he shouldn’t meddle in issues like the Vietnam War or the rights of union workers. We know from his own testimony the doubts and the pain this caused him, and that the controversy that would swirl around his actions would last until the fateful day he died.
“I raise all this because nearly 50 years after the March on Washington, our work, Dr. King’s work, is not yet complete. We gather here at a moment of great challenge and great change. In the first decade of this new century, we have been tested by war and by tragedy; by an economic crisis and its aftermath that has left millions out of work, and poverty on the rise, and millions more just struggling to get by. Indeed, even before this crisis struck, we had endured a decade of rising inequality and stagnant wages. In too many troubled neighborhoods across the country, the conditions of our poorest citizens appear little changed from what existed 50 years ago — neighborhoods with underfunded schools and broken-down slums, inadequate health care, constant violence, neighborhoods in which too many young people grow up with little hope and few prospects for the future.
“Our work is not done. And so on this day, in which we celebrate a man and a movement that did so much for this country, let us draw strength from those earlier struggles. First and foremost, let us remember that change has never been quick. Change has never been simple, or without controversy. Change depends on persistence. Change requires determination.”
Perhaps the parallels were unintentional, and I wasn’t supposed to notice them, but hearing Obama talk about the pace of change, recall the criticism King faced from his own allies, and emphasize the importance of persistence to achieve meaningful progress, it occurred to me this is a message the president probably hopes those who supported him in 2008 keep in mind in advance of 2012.
Postscript: Obama added, by the way, “As was true 50 years ago, as has been true throughout human history, those with power and privilege will often decry any call for change as ‘divisive.’ They’ll say any challenge to the existing arrangements are unwise and destabilizing.’” If the change parallels were a subtle message to the left, I’m inclined to think this was a hint to the right and the political establishment.