In the half-century since the March on Washington, the walls of official segregation have come tumbling down, but inequality has worsened.
President Barack Obama said today at the Lincoln Memorial that the decades since the 1963 “March for Jobs and Freedom” have not delivered on the name’s first demand.
“The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few,” Obama said. “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.”
Capping off a day that featured many Georgia political and civil rights luminaries, Obama presented a striking tableau of the nation’s first black president, under a giant marble Great Emancipator, honoring the leaders who shredded segregation and helped clear his path to the Oval Office. He spoke of how city councils, state legislatures and Congress added nonwhite members.
“Yes, eventually the White House changed,” Obama said to large cheers from the thousands-strong crowd along the reflecting pool.
He only mentioned in passing his administration’s newly vigorous enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, after the Supreme Court stripped away some of its federal oversight of state election law. Obama did not echo other speakers today in bringing up the summer’s most thorny civil rights issues, such as the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin or New York City’s challenged “Stop and Frisk” policy.
Instead, much of the speech focused on the economic forces that have widened inequality in America, and the political forces that have not fixed it. Obama blamed those who see taxation and regulation and labor unions as violating economic principles, and politicians who stoke the notion “that distant bureaucrats were taking their hard-earned dollars to benefit the welfare cheat or the illegal immigrant.”
But there were plenty of blameworthy folks on the left, too.
“What had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself,” Obama said. “All of that history is how progress stalled. That’s how hope was diverted. It’s how our country remained divided.”
He spoke directly to the experiences of black Americans, as he has done more frequently in his second term, including during a commencement address at Morehouse College in May and after the July acquittal of George Zimmerman in Martin’s killing.
But he also gave a more broad class-based argument to the muti-hued crowd, one that he said fits right in with the goals of 50 years ago.
“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.”
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