The president urged Americans not to settle for what is and fight for what ought to be.
With the shimmering Tidal Basin and Martin Luther King Memorial stone of hope as a backdrop, President Obama delivered a moving tribute to the civil rights legend during the formal dedication of the memorial built in his honor. He also cautioned the crowd of more than 10,000 that King’s work is not yet done and that many of the same inequities still exist.
"In this place, he will stand for all time, among monuments to those who fathered this nation and those who defended it; a Black preacher with no official rank or title who somehow gave voice to our deepest dreams and our most lasting ideals, a man who stirred our conscience and thereby helped make our union more perfect,” Obama said.
But, as the president noted, the nation is far from perfect and in some ways little has changed in the past 50 years. He pointed to “neighborhoods with underfunded schools and broken-down slums, inadequate health care, constant violence, neighborhoods in which too many young people grow up with little hope and few prospects for the future” as evidence that the struggle has not ended and urged Americans to draw strength from earlier struggles to continue the fight.
At times Obama appeared to be drawing parallels between some of the challenges King faced and his own as he battles with Congress to try to right a downward economy. He noted that, while people revere King today, there was a time when people resented or disagreed with his message.
“Even after rising to prominence, even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King was vilified by many, denounced as a rabble rouser and an agitator, a communist and a radical,” Obama said. “He was even attacked by his own people, by those who felt he was going too fast or those who felt he was going too slow; by those who felt he shouldn't meddle in issues like the Vietnam War or the rights of union workers.”
Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson was very impressed by the president’s remarks, which he said “was an incredible manifestation of his acknowledgement of his roots in the King legacy while trying to extend them into the 21st century.” Dyson also notes that the parallels that Obama drew between the civil rights era and today were “insightful” because so much is still the same, such as American involvement in war and insensitivity toward people who are different, whether it be because of race, sexual orientation or economic status.
“He did a brilliant job of locating himself in the greater field of both Black consciousness and Democratic energy,” Dyson said.
As the president has learned time after time since taking office, change doesn’t come easy, and more often than not it is extremely hard-won. In his speech he implored listeners to not settle because progress is slow and keep pushing for what's right.
“Let us remember that change has never been quick. Change has never been simple, or without controversy. Change depends on persistence. Change requires determination,” Obama said, adding that King “refused to accept what he called the ‘isness’ of today. He kept pushing for the ‘oughtness’ of tomorrow.”
The president called on Americans to also push for the “oughtness” of a world-class education for every child, affordable and accessible health care for all and a fair economic system.
“Let us not be trapped by what is,” he said.
Marian Wright Edelman worked with King from her senior year at Spelman College when she was 20 until his assassination when she was 28 and had moved to Washington, D.C., to work on his poor people’s campaign. Edelman, who later founded the Children’s Defense Fund, shared with BET.com insights about King that some people might be surprised to learn. And while she wasn’t offering Obama advice, he might take comfort in her words.
“King was a man of great courage but he was also afraid. I loved it because, as a young person, he could always say ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do next,’ but you step out in faith. So he didn’t feel he had to be perfect, he could admit when he didn’t know something and that he was afraid, but he would keep going despite that,” Edelman said.