I have a confession to make. The constant and unending barrage of criticism and snark directed at our President sometimes makes me cynical and snarky and negative. That’s where I started today as I watched the commemoration of the 50th anniversary on the march on Washington. After all, you can’t give attention to things like wingnuts making random Facebook threats on the President’s life, or gutting voting rights to suppress minority voters, or the monotonous drumbeat against everyone having access to health care without getting the tiniest bit cynical about the country’s potential to ever get past hate and bigotry.
This was my mindset during Presidents Carter and Clinton’s speeches. It was my mindset listening to Martin Luther King’s daughter. It was my mindset listening to Oprah Winfrey, to the choirs and singers and others out there working to inspire the crowd. And it was my mindset as the President began to speak.
He always breaks that barrier down. Every single time. The man has the uncanny ability to reach somewhere behind the barriers and cynicism and find my true heart. Today was no exception. His speech was remarkable in so many ways. He began with the history, paying tribute to those unsung ordinary heroes who marched 50 years ago:
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.
Then comes the “and yet” or as I call it, “glass half full”:
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.
After rightly lauding those who wrought that change, the President warned against complacency:
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 by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote, or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all, and the criminal justice system is not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails, it requires vigilance.
Yes. This. There is no better example of how injustice is being done than the harm done to voting rights in this country, not only by the Supreme Court, but also groups like TrueTheVote and corrupt Republican outfits run by the likes of Nathan Sproul. Just this weekend Phyllis Schlafly said this:
“Early voting plays a major role in Obama’s ground game….[It] is an essential component of the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote campaign.”
They’re not even embarrassed about it anymore. Eroding voting rights, voter registration efforts, and early voting is nothing more than a way to peel votes away from minority voters in order to disenfranchise them. That’s their dream.
All of this was great, but when President Obama pivoted over to civil rights in the context of economic equality, he really started to hit home. His speech had been hyped as having such a focus for the past few days, so it came as no surprise. What surprised me was his vehemence and his passion for it. For a guy who has suffered criticism from the left side of the political spectrum, it seemed to me that he was striking back against that, and hard. He didn’t spare the ugly conservative voices who seem to revel in shaming the poor and struggling, either.
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.
We shouldn’t fool ourselves. The task will not be easy. Since 1963, the economy has changed. The twin forces of technology and global competition have subtracted those jobs that once provided a foothold into the middle class — reduced the bargaining power of American workers. And our politics has suffered. 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. We’d be told that growing inequality was a price for a growing economy, a measure of this free market; that greed was good and compassion ineffective, and those without jobs or health care had only themselves to blame.
You might be saying to yourself, yeah, yeah. He’s said all of this before and it makes no difference because he can’t get anyone to cooperate. That’s easy to say. I say it too. As I said, that was the attitude I had before I heard him speak. Yet, as the cadence of his speech shifted from history to action, I found myself both convicted and inspired.
There’s a reason why so many who marched that day, and in the days to come, were young — for the young are unconstrained by habits of fear, unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dared to dream differently, to imagine something better. And I am convinced that same imagination, the same hunger of purpose stirs in this generation.
That moment made me cry. Cry for lost opportunities to change, for past complacency, for a tendency to become caught in the ‘habits of fear.’ In that moment, I was reminded that I’m not young, that my children are the ones who will fight the next set of battles, that I have time, energy and a voice, but they have the strength I lacked when it mattered.
And then the President did what he does so well when he speaks. His cadence picked up, becoming almost a song of battle, a call to action:
We might not face the same dangers of 1963, but the fierce urgency of now remains. We may never duplicate the swelling crowds and dazzling procession of that day so long ago — no one can match King’s brilliance — but the same flame that lit the heart of all who are willing to take a first step for justice, I know that flame remains. (Applause.)
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. (Applause.)
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 is down on his luck — he’s marching. (Applause.)
The mother who pours her love into her daughter so that she grows up with the confidence to walk through the same door as anybody’s son — she’s marching. (Applause.)
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. (Applause.)
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. (Applause.)
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. (Applause.)
Once again, this remarkable and yet so-human President reminded me that WE are the change. He can inspire, but it’s us who make change happen. We’re the ones who have to march if we want change. Whether it’s the ERA, or health care, or economic equality, or equality in education, or whatever our battleground is, it’s up to us to fight for it.