Reflections on President Obama's speech at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

On August 28th, 2013, President Barack Obama delivered a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the “Let Freedom Ring” ceremony commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Several students of Director and Professor john powell shared some of their own reflections.

“As I listen to President Obama speak on the anniversary of the March of Washington, I am reminded of a quote by Antonio Gramsci that states something along the lines of the challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and to live without being disillusioned. I have a difficult time finding many of the words said by Obama sincere, particularly in his latest actions regarding his cabinet. He mentions the employer that pays their employees a living wage, yet, he chose Penny Pritzer, chairperson of Hyatt, to be Secretary of Commerce. Hyatt, a company that is notorious among hotel workers for their exploitation. President Obama focuses on the work done by individuals to attempt to push back against creating a second-class citizenry. He speaks as a third party discussing what one party has done to fight back against problems but does not discuss how these problems existed, came to be, and continue to exist and how he too is part of a system that supports the status quo.”

"Listening to Obama’s speech, I latched on to his call to youth as it personally resonated with me. Obama asked for youth to take an active role in fulfilling King’s unfinished dream before youth became older and other personal realities take over their lives. I was already listening for and anticipating this message as I believe I do have a role to play in addressing the many issues Obama described facing minority and low-income populations. However, I still wondered how this speech effectively brought anyone new to the discussion or to seeing the truly significant needs certain populations face in our country. Obama asked for people to be courageous in moving toward the goals he stated, but I question if he is trying to engage with anyone new who could effectuate this change in society; with the banker, or the lawyer, or the businessman who doesn’t have to think about race and poverty issues on daily basis because they don’t affect his personal life. Obama seemed satisfied to ask for courage and mobilization, but he did not convey that it was a true priority to him, his colleagues, or the upper class.”

“The various comments about the speech made in class all resonated with me. I, too, was engaged greatly by the first part of the speech that we watched; I was nodding my head and agreeing with the “diagnosis” of institutional and structural forces that actively promote race, class, and gender disparities. But I checked out when President Obama began invoking images of individuals as the salve to these structural problems. I become self-conscious and embarrassed, to be honest. Embarrassed for him and embarrassed for myself. There’s a paradox here. To focus my embarrassment and/or frustration at President Obama – at an individual working amongst institutions, structural forces, and history much larger and more powerful than any one person – is to ignore the biggest lesson of the speech: that racism, classism, and sexism are more sociological than psychological. Yet individuals, particularly the President of the United States, do have the agency to not only raise awareness of structural forces but to change them. Just because the problems are structural does not mean that a single person cannot affect them. I think part of this goes to the false equivalencies you mentioned in class. President Obama invoked individuals and only had them taking action – befriending your neighbor, seeing your own family in the family of another race – that was highly specific and individualized. That equivalency need not be true. An individual, particularly the President, can take action that affects large structural forces.”

"It is undeniable that Obama’s speech has a an emotional connotation for anyone who has suffered from discrimination in the past, and for anyone who strives to live in a more just society, not one that lacks opportunities on the basis of race and gender. Nonetheless, hearing the speech reinforced that old saying in my mind:“it is easier said than done”. President Obama’s administration has perpetuated a variety of defective market structures that severely harmed the most vulnerable sectors of American society. In this sense, I found his speech inconsistent with many of his actions. Furthermore, he does not give any kind of broad actions that should be taken and need to be taken in order to make justice to those who have suffered form segregation in the past, such as African Americans and Hispanic Immigrants, which in my view taints the speech with demagogy. On the other hand, he does not condemn particular on going actions that stifle justice to those that have been harshly discriminated. For example, American policemen shooting across the Mexican border, resulting in the death of children on the other side of the river, or housing discrimination to African Americans. In conclusion, I would have liked to hear President Obama talk more about the State’s responsibility to promote dignity and the equal exercise of Human Rights (regardless of your racial or economic background), instead of placing the burden on the population to set it right for those who have suffered (e.g. “… we need to turn towards each other”). However, it is undoubtedly necessary that the President (the most fundamental political figure of the country) publicly stands against injustice and commits to moving away from a history of discrimination and injustice, towards a society that not only respects differences, but embraces them."

“I was struck by how few times Obama acknowledged poverty’s disparate impact on the Black community, as opposed to discussing it as an “American” issue. Obama largely discussed poverty as a struggle “we all face” – as an American problem rather than a problem that affects certain groups more than others. This seemed troubling, particularly considering the fact that he was speaking to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. I would imagine this decision to frame poverty as a struggle “we all face” was a political move – an attempt to get as many people as possible to buy in, or to put it another way, an attempt to not ostracize anyone by discussing poverty's impact on only certain types of people. But it presents an interesting question: Is it better to be inclusive when discussing poverty in hopes of having more people buy in, despite the fact that you will ignore the disparate impact it has on some groups? Or, is it better to focus on poverty’s disparate impact on non-whites and risk dividing his audience? I suppose in large part it depends on what Obama’s priorities are. If his priorities are being truthful and open about the actual state of poverty in America, perhaps he should run the risk of isolating whites and tackle the issue head-on. On the other hand, if his priority is assembling as large a coalition as possible (either in an electoral sense, or a coalition to actually work on reducing poverty), perhaps it makes more sense to discuss it as an issue that affects all peoples.”

“In my opinion, President Obama’s speech did not address the amazing evolution of civil rights in our country in the past 50 years. Because I am of the age where I lived through the 1960’s, I clearly remember Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream . . .” speech (I was 16 years old; it was the same year as President Kennedy’s assassination). I remember the fact that in the South, schools, buses, restaurants, even drinking fountains were segregated then.  Attempts to integrate were met with violence.  Even in the non-Southern states, the average white school child was taught that he or she must not associate with blacks because black people were ignorant, dirty, violent, dishonest, and basically irredeemable (I am not making this up because these are words I heard from students in my essentially all white school in New Jersey). The ramifications of this prevalent attitude were that an African American child could never hope to live and work with Caucasian individuals, or aspire to a respectable job or profession, and certainly could not become President of the United States! While I completely agree with Obama that we still have a long way to go, the headway has been remarkable, and I thank Dr. King for that.”

“It’s hard to praise Obama for this rhetoric when we’ve seen how hollow it’s been over the last 6 years. He’s perpetuated the system of inequality that he claims to rail against by continually kowtowing to corporate interests. I also find it offensive when he says that people were busy asking for government support when they should’ve been pushing for change, or that people were using poverty as an excuse not to raise their children properly. It’s almost like he’s trying to throw the right wing a bone there, and I just don’t understand that, even politically, since the right wing crucifies him regardless of what he says or does. In other words, if he going to be painted as a "socialist radical" no matter how centrist he is, why not act a bit more socialist and radical? What does he have to lose at this point?”

“I felt President Obama made a strong case for linking certain present-day issues with the ideals that motivated Dr. King's speech.  Particularly resonant to me was the comparison between the modern struggle for marriage equality with the legacy of discrimination against interracial marriage: "[Courage comes]...when an interracial couple connects the pain of a gay couple discriminated against and understands it as their own."  I also appreciated the articulation of why economic opportunity is important to liberty: "What does it profit a man to have an integrated lunch counter if he cannot afford a meal?"  Given that liberty is often defined narrowly as respecting negative constraints on action, rather than facilitating the ability of people to pursue a goof life, it is important in our political discourse to provide a robust theoretical alternative.  One part of the speech that I did not appreciate was the false equivalence drawn in the section on how racial politics "cut both ways" in the struggle for equality: "Legitimate grievances about police brutality led to excuse making for criminal behavior."  I did not feel this added anything of value to the speech or provided proportional treatment, given the far greater severity of the harms imposed by institutionalized racism.”

“Barack Obama’s speech on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington had the potential to be a call to action, just as MLK’s speech was in 1963. Instead, his speech left me, an Obama campaign organizer in 2008, frustrated and disappointed. In particular, I disliked that the speech ended with vignettes of individuals “marching” for freedom by doing extraordinary deeds in their individual lives – such as the teacher who uses her own money to buy supplies for her students or the businessman that pays his employees a living wage, “even when he doesn’t have to.”  To me, the point of the March on Washington was to spur big changes to the system that creates inequities in education and jobs, not just to inspire individuals to make whatever small difference they’re able to while accepting the status quo. To me, Obama’s use of these images suggests that all that’s needed to continue Dr. King’s legacy is a few people doing a few good deeds. I think the real point of the March was to secure structural changes – to change the way education is funded so that the quality of education a student receives isn’t dependent on where she grows up and if her teacher is able to spare some of her income to buy supplies, or to ensure that all workers are paid a decent wage that isn’t dependent on the benevolence of their CEO.

I was a little surprised when Obama, intentionally or not, invoked his own failures as a leader in discussing America’s trajectory since 1963. In saying, “if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us, claiming to push for change, lost our way.” Obama may have been talking about riots that occurred after assassinations of movement leaders or about the racial coding of welfare policy discussions, but I certainly felt the irony of the statement coming from a president who based his first campaign entirely on sentiments of “hope” and “change.” Unfortunately, Obama has not done much over the past four years to secure meaningful change to the systems that continue to oppress and divide poor and minority communities. Indeed, many of his choices seem to suggest he has lost his way.”

“President Obama’s speech demonstrates the difficulty of the moment: speaking about a problem that at the same time is worse in many ways and yet harder to define. While Dr. King’s speech was lyrical and inspiring, there was also a lot he did not need to say because of the ubiquity of explicit racism. And now, while many factors demonstrate that quality of life and wealth gaps are widening for African Americans, there is less universal acceptance of the existence and impact of implicit racialization and its role in perpetuating systemic disadvantages for African Americans. In this context, it is quite difficult for someone like President Obama to be as lyrical and inspiring as Dr. King was when so much work needs to be done to build awareness of unconscious bias. His speech was an important contribution to that ongoing work. Nevertheless, President Obama could still have gone further in drawing attention to bias, its impact, and possible solutions.”

"At first listen, I was moved by Obama's speech and thought that it was inspiring for Americans to have their struggles validated. When he targeted the individual struggles that many Americans are facing, I think most Americans can relate to something Obama said there. I thought the "marching" language was powerful, but as I reflected on the speech after I heard it and listened again, it struck me that, while all of these actions taken by Americans give hope for creating a better future generation of people, he did not address the institutional barriers that prevent people from moving forward and society from being equal. You said that Obama's speech would not be as impactful as King's speech. One reason for this is that Obama is the president and he should have the power to push for institutional changes, but we do not see him doing enough of that. It is hard to believe politicians when they say they are going to change the system - because they so rarely do."

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