Karl Douglass: Then a dream, now a plan

September 1, 2013 

I never expected Barack Obama to give the second "I Have A Dream" speech. He couldn't.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he stood there as an agitator. He stood there as an unelected activist exercising his constitutional right to petition his government for redress of grievances. "It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note", he said "America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'"

On August 28, 1963, Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a powerful voice to those who wanted to challenge government. On August 28, 2013, President Obama stood on those same steps as the world's most powerful symbol of government.

That's why he couldn't give the second "I Have A Dream" speech.

President Obama could not echo Dr. King's radical challenge to the American government because he is the American government. His words had to take a different path. Not a bad path, a different path.

"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," President Obama said. And he is right. Much has changed for African-Americans since 1963 and many things have changed for the better. The work of those in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s made a difference.

"But", the President acknowledged, "we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete."

With that phrase, President Obama began giving the speech that only he could give. He talked about closing the pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails. He talked about increasing citizens' access to the vote. He talked about the dignity of work and the need for decent pay. And his words carried a particular power because he is the president. Not an activist. Not an agitator. The President of the United States of America.

In his speech, President Obama laid out a legislative agenda. He called for a reshaping of public policy from the highest office in the land. He didn't talk about his dream. The President pushed his plan.

1963, Dr. King spoke to the ages. In 2013, President Obama spoke to the issues. It is impossible to compare their words, much less their oratory. The two men stood at different times and as symbols of different things, but both will stand as symbols of transformational moments in American history.

Karl Douglass, Columbus native and resident, is a frequent commenter on local, state and federal politics. Follow him on Twitter@KarlDouglass or facebook.com/karldouglass.

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