By Peniel E. Joseph
President Barack Obama’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington forcefully articulated an expansive vision of economic justice and racial equality but stopped short of concrete policy proposals needed to turn words into deeds.
“Five decades ago today, Americans came to this honored place to lay claim to a promise made at our founding,” Obama began. The president recounted the multicultural composition of demonstrators, who came by planes, buses and trains. In the “shadow of the Great Emancipator,” more than a quarter of million Americans gathered to demand nothing less than the fundamental transformation of American democracy.
“But we would do well to remember that day also belonged to ordinary people whose names never appeared in history books and never got on TV,” Obama continued. The president stressed the participation of anonymous black and white citizens who supported freedom’s cause but would never be celebrated.
Obama quoted Frederick Douglass’ axiom that “freedom is not just given” but is the byproduct of social and political struggle. This was an important part of the speech, especially since Douglass stands out as the most important black activist of the antebellum era, one who met with Abraham Lincoln three times and remained both a supporter and critic of the president.
But where were the specifics that would have truly honored the March on Washington? The 250,000 people who gathered 50 years ago were looking for specific solutions, not just soaring rhetoric. Where was the president’s promise to sign a series of executive orders that would focus on anti-poverty efforts or increase access to higher education? Or governmental action that perhaps could ease the transition of ex-offenders back into communities or promote jobs programs, especially in economically devastated urban and rural communities?