There have been three movements in the history of the American Regime. The first was the founding itself, crowning in the Philadelphia convention and culminating in the ratification of the Constitution. The second began with the rise of the Republican Party, crowning with the election of Lincoln and the Civil War, and culminated in 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. The last was the Civil Rights Movement. That movement culminated in the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act in 1964 and 65.
The Civil Rights Movement had its crowning in the March on Washington fifty years ago today. It gave us the last, as I suspect, of our founding fathers in Martin Luther King, Jr. He gave us one of the greatest speeches in the canon of American rhetoric. It is altogether proper that this event should observed in Washington today by our first African American president.
I doubt that Mr. Obama’s speech will be long remembered, but it is worth noting now. He got off to a good start.
To the King family, who have sacrificed and inspired so much, to President Clinton, President Carter, Vice President Biden, Jill, fellow Americans, five decades ago today, Americans came to this honored place to lay claim to a promise made at our founding.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In 1963, almost 200 years after those words were set to paper, a full century after a great war was fought and emancipation proclaimed, that promise, those truths remained unmet. And so they came by the thousands, from every corner of our country -- men and women, young and old, blacks who longed for freedom and whites who could no longer accept freedom for themselves while witnessing the subjugation of others. Across the land, congregations sent them off with food and with prayer. In the middle of the night, entire blocks of Harlem came out to wish them well.
That gets it right. The central passage from the Declaration is what the United States has always been about. Those principles were greatly advanced by Lee’s surrender but another century of apartheid would intervene before their promise could be realized. As in 1863 so in 1963, that realization was advanced by the relentless march of vast numbers.
The President unintentionally reveals the problem facing the contemporary civil rights movement in this passage:
To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed -- that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years. (Applause.) Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Martin Luther King Jr., they did not die in vain. (Applause.) Their victory was great.
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 it's by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all in the criminal justice system and not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails -- (applause) -- it requires vigilance.
Yes. It is unsound to argue that nothing much has changed or that the 1960’s movement did not fundamentally transform the nation. Yet, the issues raised in the second paragraph, however you come down on them, just are not a part of that movement. They are part of the ordinary business of politics in a country where African American voters can play a decisive role in nominating a candidate and getting him elected at the highest level.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the speech was this:
And then, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us, claiming to push for change, lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots.
Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse- making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And 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. All of that history is how progress stalled. That's how hope was diverted. It's how our country remained divided.
The President did a very brave thing, there. He acknowledged the legitimacy and to some extent conceded the point of the honorable opposition. Almost any conservative could have put the matter in just that way.
No, we are not a color blind nation, as if anyone ever said we were. No, racism has not disappeared from America, even if is now a mere shadow of what one sees in such enlightened places as Europe. Race continues to haunt us in our passions and imaginations. It has become, however, just another of the issues that heat up pages and political rooms. The President mentioned jobs in his speech. Whatever we accomplish on that front, it is unlikely to be memorialized in granite.
That is what the heroic period of the Civil Rights Movement accomplished: to make our politics less heroic and more ordinary. It is a good day to recall how magnificent and achievement that was.