As he stands – literally – in the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Wednesday to commemorate the movement that paved the way to his presidency, President Barack Obama faces the unique challenge of paying tribute to King’s vision without the urgent focus on racial discrimination that motivated the original March on Washington.
“The president is the president. He's not a civil rights leader, ” Rep. John Lewis, the only living speaker from the 1963 march said Sunday. “There's a difference.”
Obama’s presidency – after five years and two decisive elections – is a self-evident tribute to the realization of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But his job title also means that he’s charged with separating his own identity from the task of improving the lives of all Americans, creating a balancing act as he prepares to deliver an anticipated address from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial marking the anniversary of the march.
“His message has to be about policy and his priorities about moving this country forward and lifting all boats through his efforts,” said Terry Edmonds, former chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and the first African-American to hold that position.
And the president seems poised to do just that.
In an interview with radio host Tom Joyner, Obama said that he believes King would be “amazed” by the progress that the country has made in breaking down barriers to social progress.
“What he would also say, though, is that the March on Washington was about jobs and justice,” Obama added. “And that when it comes to the economy, when it comes to inequality, when it comes to wealth, when it comes to the challenges that inner cities experience, he would say that we have not made as much progress as the civil and social progress that we’ve made.”
Many supporters say that message is the best way for Obama to commemorate an event fully billed as a “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
“Much of [King’s] vision has been realized if you look at things in a social way; those social barriers by and large have been knocked down, but the economic barriers that he said we needed to move to next are still there,” Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., told NBC News. “I would hope that the president’s speech will be the carrying of the baton that he’s been handed by King. He should use the speech as his leg of this race.”
Obama’s past messages to predominantly black audiences have frequently referenced institutional barriers to success as the “legacy of discrimination,” citing poverty and educational inequality as new challenges for the black community.
And Obama has indicated that will be at least part of his message Wednesday. In a town hall event last Friday, the president was asked about the role of education in civil rights.
“Well, 50 years after the March on Washington and the ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ obviously we've made enormous strides,” the president said. “I'm a testament to it.”
“And what's wonderful to watch is that the younger generation seems – each generation seems wiser in terms of wanting to treat people fairly and do the right thing and not discriminate,” Obama continued. "And that’s a great victory that we should all be very proud of. On the other hand, I think what we've also seen is that the legacy of discrimination – slavery, Jim Crow – has meant that some of the institutional barriers for success for a lot of groups still exist. African-American poverty in this country is still significantly higher than other groups,” he added.
But the president has also often delivered a message of tough love, urging more responsible parenting and the eschewing of “excuses” based on race.
“Whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured – and overcame,” he told students at King’s alma mater, Morehouse College, this spring.
The president’s commemoration of the famed speech comes at a time when Obama’s racial identity is still fodder for discussion even after more than five years in office and two successful elections.
While Obama has addressed issues of race rarely, the times when he has spoken directly about racial divisions have prompted the accusation that he’s exacerbated – rather than bridged – those gulfs.
After he offered a deeply personal response to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, opponents said he went too far by “siding” with the family of the slain teen by saying “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker suggested earlier last week that Obama’s identification with Martin may have “nourish[ed] the killing passions” of the black youths who randomly shot and killed a white Australian baseball player in Oklahoma.
He faced similar outcry after he said that Cambridge, Mass., police “acted stupidly” when arresting African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. for disorderly conduct in 2009. (Obama said later that he “could’ve calibrated those words differently.”)
David Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, says that Obama – even at a moment so steeped in the nation’s racial history – is typically reluctant to spotlight his own identity.
“The White House’s attitude is that everybody in America who’s black knows that he’s the first black president,” he said. “Black America doesn’t need to be reminded. And, simultaneously, with much of white America, reminding them that Obama is black is not necessarily a positive.”
Edmonds says Obama faces a unique challenge that Clinton did not – despite his high popularity in the black community.
Clinton wasn’t at risk of criticism for “being too deferential to the African-American community,” Edmunds said. “President Obama has that challenge.”
Mindful that comparisons will inevitably be made between his remarks on Wednesday and King’s famous speech, Obama made sure to set expectations for his own address a bit lower.
“Let me just say for the record right now, it won’t be as good as the speech 50 years ago,” Obama joked. “I just want to get that out there early.”