Political Animal


October 17, 2011 10:40 AM Obama finds some relevant parallels

By Steve Benen

President Obama spoke in D.C. yesterday at the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial dedication, and if you missed the remarks, they’re well worth watching.

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Obama’s speech was a fitting tribute to Dr. King and his legacy, but watching the dedication, it seemed the president was drawing some subtle parallels — or perhaps not-so-subtle parallels — between those who complained about the pace of progress a half-century ago, and those who do the same today. “Progress,” the president explained, “was hard.”

“We forget now, but during his life, Dr. King wasn’t always considered a unifying figure. 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. 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. We know from his own testimony the doubts and the pain this caused him, and that the controversy that would swirl around his actions would last until the fateful day he died.

“I raise all this because nearly 50 years after the March on Washington, our work, Dr. King’s work, is not yet complete. We gather here at a moment of great challenge and great change. In the first decade of this new century, we have been tested by war and by tragedy; by an economic crisis and its aftermath that has left millions out of work, and poverty on the rise, and millions more just struggling to get by. Indeed, even before this crisis struck, we had endured a decade of rising inequality and stagnant wages. In too many troubled neighborhoods across the country, the conditions of our poorest citizens appear little changed from what existed 50 years ago — 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.

“Our work is not done. And so on this day, in which we celebrate a man and a movement that did so much for this country, let us draw strength from those earlier struggles. First and foremost, let us remember that change has never been quick. Change has never been simple, or without controversy. Change depends on persistence. Change requires determination.”

Perhaps the parallels were unintentional, and I wasn’t supposed to notice them, but hearing Obama talk about the pace of change, recall the criticism King faced from his own allies, and emphasize the importance of persistence to achieve meaningful progress, it occurred to me this is a message the president probably hopes those who supported him in 2008 keep in mind in advance of 2012.

Postscript: Obama added, by the way, “As was true 50 years ago, as has been true throughout human history, those with power and privilege will often decry any call for change as ‘divisive.’ They’ll say any challenge to the existing arrangements are unwise and destabilizing.’” If the change parallels were a subtle message to the left, I’m inclined to think this was a hint to the right and the political establishment.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


Post a comment
  • Alli on October 17, 2011 10:54 AM:

    Thank you for this post Steve. Very few liberal blogs covered or commented on yesterday's speech.

  • DAY on October 17, 2011 11:04 AM:

    excellent, but waaay too subtle for the masses who think "9-9-9" and "drill, baby, drill" are deep thoughts.

  • c u n d gulag on October 17, 2011 11:08 AM:

    Call me an Obamabot, but I still get a thrill out of writing or saying "President Barack Hussein Obama."

    And it looks like he's starting to find his voice.

    He needs to keep MLK's message going forward.
    And you can bet your last penny that Martin Luther King Jr. would have been front and center with the rest of the OWS folks!
    And so, the President needs to as well.

    Why do you think right is so afraid?
    Why are they trying to lash out with their stupid 53%, Luntz-tested, ad campaign?

    They need to discredit OWS and it's message about 99% of the people.

    Hey, 'morans,' ain't NO SUCH THING as 53%.
    If you ain't in the 1%, then you're part of US 99%

    Dumbass rubes...

  • Anonymous on October 17, 2011 11:08 AM:

    I think nein nein nein fit the republican congress perfectly...

  • rikyrah on October 17, 2011 11:20 AM:

    POTUS also recognizes that MLK was the MOST HATED MAN IN AMERICA for huge swaths of this country.

  • Ohioan on October 17, 2011 12:48 PM:

    "Perhaps the parallels were unintentional, and I wasn’t supposed to notice them."

    Uh, they were intentional all right. Obama was correct to talk about what lessons to draw from MLK's life that can be applied to today's problems.

  • Cha on October 17, 2011 3:13 PM:

    Thanks for this post, Steve, on PBO's very compelling speech yesterday at MLK's Memorial on the Mall.

    There were a few Progressive blogs who were "Celebrating The Dream" but this one came with all the amazing pics(Stevie Wonder was there!) to go with it and 463 positive comments.


  • yellowdog on October 18, 2011 1:59 AM:

    President Obama's remarks at the MLK event were gracious, thoughtful, and moving. He described the King who called out in preacherly voice for true racial brotherhood, but he did not neglect the King who drew criticism for talking about economic justice and matters of war and peace. King was always a divisive figure, an upsetter of accepted ideologies. Obama described a more complete figure than most people are accustomed to. It was good to hear.

    Is it even necessary to point out how much of the story was lost on the media?