Today’s anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech will feature an address by President Obama. As such, we should have some sympathy for the president. Being asked to give a speech commemorating one of the most famous speeches in American history is an unenviable task. Like someone going to Gettysburg to honor Lincoln’s address, no matter what you say, you’re bound to come up short in comparison to the original. But no matter how pedestrian our current great orator’s words sound when placed in juxtaposition to King’s words, the president’s presence on the podium will have greater significance than anything he says. There is, after all, no more powerful argument about how different the America of 2013 is from that of 1963 than the fact that the president of the United States today is an African-American.
There is no small irony in this since the president, his supporters and, indeed, most of what is left of what we still call the civil-rights movement have spent the last several months attempting to argue that whatever progress has been made, racism is still endemic in American society. Though the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial was a confusing case involving a Hispanic man claiming self-defense, liberals seeking to recapture the ancient struggle for civil rights inflated it into a rerun of the Emmitt Till murder. Commonsense voter ID laws supported by most African-Americans have been branded by no less a figure than the attorney general of the United States (also now a black man) into a new version of the despicable Jim Crow laws that motivated the 1963 march. But the reality of the Obama presidency gives the lie to these false charges. Though contemporary America is neither perfect nor free of individual racists, Obama is the realization of King’s dream.
If there is one thing that we know about our country today it is that in November 2008 and November 2012, it judged a black man by the content of his character and not the color of his skin.
We may not have arrived at a completely color-blind utopia yet, but Obama’s election and his reelection demonstrated that Jim Crow is dead once and for all. Whites may have been prepared to tolerate blacks in the 1960s or even to give them equality. But in the last five years they have twice shown that they were willing to vote for one for president.
An intellectually bankrupt left and civil-rights groups that long ago lost their way may cling to the idea that little or nothing has changed. Their struggle should have been transformed into one that sought to address the breakdown of the black family and other social pathologies (fed in no small part by the growth of a well-intentioned welfare state in the wake of the passage of historic civil-rights laws) long ago. But instead they cling to the notion that white racism is the problem. In doing so they have perpetuated division rather than seeking to erase it.
One of the main reasons Obama was elected and then reelected in spite of a first term filled with failure was that his presence in the White House corrected a great historic injustice and made Americans feel good about themselves. This may be frustrating for Obama’s critics, but it is altogether understandable. It should also cause those speaking today at the Lincoln Memorial to ponder just how different America is today from the one where King dreamed such a thing might be possible. Instead of decrying America’s failings today, the president and others who speak should be celebrating just how much we have achieved. Barack Obama is the embodiment of American progress. Let us hope he spends today and the rest of his time in the White House fulfilling his promises to try and bring us together rather than working, as he has done, to keeping old, dead, and hurtful fights alive.