Yesterday I switched on the radio in two rooms of my house to catch the live broadcasts of the lineup of speakers on the Washington mall. I could have turned on the television, but I didn't want the images corrupting whatever ideal I might be carrying in my head about this recreation of history that I've heard about all my life. I was a year and a half old in 1963. I missed the '60s entirely, but certainly lived its influence. Yes, the recreation was likely all theater, but I didn't want TV instantly confirming that and dispelling any chance that memory and current reality might join together and make something powerful, if only for a morning.
Former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader and Georgia congressman John Lewis is compelling -- he still sounds angry -- but it's Jimmy Carter who speaks truth to power. An aging white Southerner, he isn't afraid to talk frankly about racism; in his remarks he uses the word frequently, unlike the others at the podium who are a bit too mindful of raining on the eternal optimistism of "the dream." And unlike some of the other speakers, Carter isn't bound by the politics of elected office. Neither is Bill Clinton, technically, but he still has skin in the game. MLK's daughter Bernice King is persuasive, and like John Lewis, she sounds angry and more than a little worried about the future. Despite all the cheering, I think everybody is.
Obama is introduced. The hush that falls over the mall sounds complete. At this point I have to leave the house and go to a meeting. It's very hot out. In the car, over the whoosh of the air conditioner, the president points out that racial progress has been made over the last 50 years, from the streets to the White House -- suddenly he is invoking himself. He cannot help it. The moment of somewhat reluctant convergence on this occasion is weird and powerful and the crowd goes crazy, and just for moment, Obama is a celebrity again, although celebrity is too small a word.
For just a moment he lives up to the historical hyperbole of all those posters of him that I've seen hanging on the walls of black businesses the last six years, all those pictures of him surrounded by elders like Malcolm X, Martin, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth. In these pictures he's flashing his famous smile or gazing solemnly into the middle distance, accepting his place in the canon of black leaders and thinkers and doers, people whose very presence has made a difference in the lives of everyone. In my car, driving down Crenshaw, imagine he is officially accepting that place now on the Washington mall, in front of thousands of people on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Obama is both that march and Washington. The thought both thrills me and worries me further.
I should have worried. After delivering soaring and damning words about the unfinished racial business in America, about the employment gap and the prison problem and the education problem and the equal access problem, Obama falls back on the conservative shibboleth that black people cannot use any of this sobering reality to justify being unproductive or over-relying on welfare or government help. It is a bizarre note to strike in the midst of a celebration of the work -- often dangerous work -- by so many black people to bring about a change in the policy of a government that had failed to guarantee them their basic rights for over a hundred years. It is deflating.
King had plenty of criticism of black people, too, but it had more to do with the middle class and its growing reluctance to commit to the cause of helping its poorer brethren. Blaming the outsized poverty black people had endured for generations simply didn't occur to King. Obama, in his presidential moment of glory standing in the shadows of both Lincoln and King, sounds like one of those middle-class folks. Or at least a sop to his nonblack constituency.
I arrive at my meeting of black activists to find that nobody is following the events of the day. Nobody has listened to Obama's remarks. "I'll catch it later on YouTube," one woman says. She is sincere. History is not what it used to be. But then, it is never supposed to be.