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 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 fifty 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.