Today from Fort Wayne, Indiana, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. “There’s been a lot of discussion this week about how Dr. King’s life and legacy speak to us today. It’s taking place in our schools and churches, on television and around the dinner table. And I suspect that much of what folks are talking about centers on issues of racial justice – on the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington, on the freedom rides and the stand at Selma. And that’s as it should be – because those were times when ordinary men and women, straight-backed and clear-eyed, challenged what they knew was wrong and helped perfect our union. And they did so in large part because Dr. King pointed the way,” Obama said.
Obama chose to speak about economic justice, which is the reason why Dr. King was in Memphis 40 years ago to support a sanitation workers strike. Speaking about the strike Obama said, “It was a struggle for economic justice, for the opportunity that should be available to people of all races and all walks of life. Because Dr. King understood that the struggle for economic justice and the struggle for racial justice were really one – that each was part of a larger struggle “for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity.” So long as Americans were trapped in poverty, so long as they were being denied the wages, benefits, and fair treatment they deserved – so long as opportunity was being opened to some but not all – the dream that he spoke of would remain out of reach.”
Obama said that the struggle for economic justice that is continuing today, “But while those sanitation workers eventually got their union contract, the struggle for economic justice remains an unfinished part of the King legacy. Because the dream is still out of reach for too many Americans. Just this morning, it was announced that more Americans are unemployed now than at any time in years. And all across this country, families are facing rising costs, stagnant wages, and the terrible burden of losing a home.”
He continued, “Part of the problem is that for a long time, we’ve had a politics that’s been too small for the scale of the challenges we face. This is something I spoke about a few weeks ago in a speech I gave in Philadelphia. And what I said was that instead of having a politics that lives up to Dr. King’s call for unity, we’ve had a politics that’s used race to drive us apart, when all this does is feed the forces of division and distraction, and stop us from solving our problems.”
Obama talked about the need for people today to do what Dr. King preached in his last sermon 40 years ago. “That is why the great need of this hour is much the same as it was when Dr. King delivered his sermon in Memphis. We have to recognize that while we each have a different past, we all share the same hopes for the future – that we’ll be able to find a job that pays a decent wage, that there will be affordable health care when we get sick, that we’ll be able to send our kids to college, and that after a lifetime of hard work, we’ll be able to retire with security. They’re common hopes, modest dreams. And they’re at the heart of the struggle for freedom, dignity, and humanity that Dr. King began, and that it is our task to complete.”
One gets the sense that Obama understands the leadership role that his position has thrust him into on the issue of race, but he doesn’t want to become labeled as the black candidate, so he is aware that he has to maintain a balance between holding a racial discussion while being above labels. I think his remarks today did exactly that. He wants to be a forward thinking candidate, so it was essential that he tied his message into the economic message of King. In a very subtle way, it helps to reinforce the idea that he is a candidate of the people. If there is one thing that Obama understands it is history. Remarks such as his today also reveal that he is also aware of his own place in the continuing historical narrative of the nation.
Check out our Podcasts page for even more political coverage: