MLK, Jr.'s most famous line from his most famous speech is not yet fulfilled, according to President Obama at the 50th anniversary celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior's most influential oration. "America has come far since that day," he said, "but it has far to go."
"I Have A Dream," Aug. 28, 1963
On a drizzly August 28, 2013, afternoon, President Obama, America's first black president, stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to speak to the members of a freedom march commemorating the marchers who stood there that day 50 years earlier. They had come to hear the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior, who stood on the same steps and sent down through the decades that clarion call. That glorious refrain echoing forward, and those thousands who stood before him to hear it, made all the difference. Much had come before, and much came after. All of it contributed to the ultimate success of legislative efforts and constitutional court battles that furthered the cause of freedom and equality for all of America's citizens.
The president in his commemorative speech said that we all remember, and rightly so, the "soaring oratory" of Dr. King's words. But he noted that those words alone could not have created the changes that came after. "It was," he said, "those thousands of unnamed marchers who carried that dream forward." He noted that America has come far since the days of that speech, and that to say it has not is to:
"...dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed -- that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years. (Applause.) Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Martin Luther King Jr., they did not die in vain. (Applause.) Their victory was great."
The president's speech was also sort of a "Yes, but..." approach to the question of whether things were better. Having assured everyone that things were better, he said
"But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn't bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency. Whether it's by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all in the criminal justice system and not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails -- (applause) -- it requires vigilance."
From there, he moved to the second great point of Dr. King's original oration. When he said, "I Have A Dream," he pointed out that the dream required the ability to pay one's way, and that such ability came only with adequate work available. Dr. King illustrated the point by asking, "What does it profit a man to be able to sit at a lunch counter if he can't afford to buy the food?"
President Obama pointed out that:
"And so as we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life. (Applause.) The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call -- this remains our great unfinished business."
As the president said, the task of America is to win back the place at the table the middle class once had, and make sure the doors of access to that status are open to all who will make the effort. That is not possible so long as the steadily increasing wage disparity between workers and company officers that locks away more and more of America's wealth from use by America or its industries prevails. Correcting that inequality remains America's greatest challenge to its continued greatness. His most telling words were to remind us that in the past 50 years great forces have realigned to keep that from happening. He noted that there are those who profit unjustly from maintaining economic inequality in an outrageous state of separation:
"Entrenched interests -- those who benefit from an unjust status quo resisted any government efforts to give working families a fair deal, marshaling an army of lobbyists and opinion makers to argue that minimum wage increases or stronger labor laws or taxes on the wealthy who could afford it just to fund crumbling schools -- that all these things violated sound economic principles."
None of those arguments are valid, of course. They are simply self-serving self-justification for rapine in the workplace. They keep ordinary Americans fighting each other rather than fighting for each other. The upshot is huge racial gaps in education, earning, wealth and power between Americans identifiable by race or ethnicity.
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