President Obama's speech at the event marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington will almost certainly be remembered as one of his most important. Presidents only get so many opportunities to speak at events like this one, laden with the trappings of civil religion and what we might think of as a contested consensus. That's a contradiction, I know, but I think it fits. The civil-rights struggle of the 1960s was among the most divisive controversies in American history, yet today there's no more argument about who was right. Even the National Review, at the time a vigorous defender of the privilege of the white South to continue oppressing black people (see here for some details) today claims Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of their own: "The civil-rights revolution, like the American revolution, was in a crucial sense conservative," they write, and they're not the only ones on the right trying to make the same case.
That's both consensus and contestation right there, the way conservatives want to embrace the civil-rights movement, step away from their own past, and simultaneously insist that what they've always supported and still support, in the form of our deeply unequal society and everything that keeps it that way, must be maintained. Add to that their sincere if utterly mad belief that whites are now the true victims of racism, and it's hard to be optimistic that the next Trayvon Martin case will be the one that brings us closer to, and not farther from, some measure of mutual understanding.
But back to Obama. This seemed to me to be a speech written in the hope it would be read 50 years hence. He'll get some criticism for not talking about any specific policy issues, but that's what happens when you swing for the rhetorical fences; you can't get too bogged down in the mundane arguments of the moment. And what struck me most about it was how little he talked about Martin Luther King. He mentioned him only a few times, but spent much more time talking about ordinary people. This was the running theme of the speech and perhaps what was most important about it. Early on he said this:
We rightly and best remember Dr. King's soaring oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions, how he offered a salvation path for oppressed and oppressors alike. His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time.
But we would do well to recall that day itself also belonged to those ordinary people whose names never appeared in the history books, never got on TV.
Many had gone to segregated schools and sat at segregated lunch counters, had lived in towns where they couldn't vote, in cities where their votes didn't matter. There were couples in love who couldn't marry, soldiers who fought for freedom abroad that they found denied to them at home.
They had seen loved ones beaten and children fire- hosed. And they had every reason to lash out in anger or resign themselves to a bitter fate.
And yet they chose a different path. In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in with the moral force of nonviolence. Willingly, they went to jail to protest unjust laws, their cells swelling with the sound of freedom songs. A lifetime of indignities had taught them that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us. They had learned through hard experience what Frederick Douglas once taught: that freedom is not given; it must be won through struggle and discipline, persistence and faith.
That was the spirit they brought here that day.
This continued through the speech, locating the heroism of the movement less in its leaders than in the regular people who made up the crowd of marchers. For instance, instead of talking about Dr. King being an inspiration to people at home and abroad, he said this:
And the entire world drew strength from that example, whether it be young people who watched from the other side of an Iron Curtain and would eventually tear down that wall, or the young people inside South Africa who would eventually end the scourge of apartheid. Those are the victories they won, with iron wills and hope in their hearts. That is the transformation that they wrought with each step of their well-worn shoes. That's the depth that I and millions of Americans owe those maids, those laborers, those porters, those secretaries -- folks who could have run a company, maybe, if they had ever had a chance; those white students who put themselves in harm's way even though they didn't have to -- those Japanese-Americans who recalled their own interment, those Jewish Americans who had survived the Holocaust, people who could have given up and given in but kept on keeping on, knowing that weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning -- on the battlefield of justice, men and women without rank or wealth or title or fame would liberate us all, in ways that our children now take for granted as people of all colors and creeds live together and learn together and walk together, and fight alongside one another and love one another, and judge one another by the content of our character in this greatest nation on Earth.
Like most of the other speeches at the event, Obama's had roughly a past-present-future structure—this is what happened then, this is what happened since, this is what must happen now—but what made his different was the focus on the "men and women without rank or wealth or title or fame." And in a way, this made the speech reminiscent of the kinds of speeches Ronald Reagan used to give. Reagan loved to talk about the heroism of ordinary Americans, from Lenny Skutnik to "the boys of Pointe du Hoc." Of course, this speech, with its talk of persistent economic inequality and unfulfilled goals of justice, wasn't one Reagan could ever have delivered. But right to the end, Obama kept talking about those whose names Americans never knew:
That tireless teacher who gets to class early and stays late and dips into her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that every child is her charge -- she's marching. That successful businessman who doesn't have to, but pays his workers a fair wage and then offers a shot to a man, maybe an ex-con, who's down on his luck -- he's marching. The mother who pours her love into her daughter so that she grows up with the confidence to walk through the same doors as anybody's son -- she's marching. The father who realizes the most important job he'll ever have is raising his boy right, even if he didn't have a father, especially if he didn't have a father at home -- he's marching. The battle-scarred veterans who devote themselves not only to helping their fellow warriors stand again and walk again and run again, but to keep serving their country when they come home -- they are marching. Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day, that change does not come from Washington but to Washington, that change has always been built on our willingness, we, the people, to take on the mantle of citizenship -- you are marching.
And that's the lesson of our past, that's the promise of tomorrow, that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it. And when millions of Americans of every race and every region, every faith and every station can join together in a spirit of brotherhood, then those mountains will be made low, and those rough places will be made plain, and those crooked places, they straighten out towards grace, and we will vindicate the faith of those who sacrificed so much and live up to the true meaning of our creed as one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
And for once, a politician ended a speech without saying "God bless America."