When President Obama addresses the throngs expected to gather Wednesday for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, don’t expect an exact echo of the themes or the oratory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s electrifying “I Have a Dream” speech.
King and the 1963 marchers confronted the evils of outright segregation and the denial of basic political and economic rights to an entire class of people. Mr. Obama — joined by predecessors Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — will be challenged to translate the ideals of the first march to address the problems of 2013, to look at the past but not dwell on it, to appeal to Americans of all races to embrace the progress made but move forward in a decisive manner.
Opinions on the fruits of King’s legacy are disparate, and some say Mr. Obama should use his address on the Mall to identify themes for a new age that were not featured on that hot day in August 1963, including education and the need for personal responsibility.
King challenged white America to live up to the ideals of equality and liberty in the nation’s founding documents, but former Republican congressman and military veteran Allen West said this year’s march should focus on raising the bar of self-discipline and help tamp down Americans’ penchant for looking to the federal government for answers.
“If you set the bar low, you jump low,” he said.
The Rev. C.T. Vivian, a King lieutenant who risked his life as a Freedom Rider and will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Mr. Obama, said it’s important to do more than merely reflect or recite King’s words. He said it’s time to re-energize King’s ideals and moral authority to fashion a focused strategy for the future.
“The important thing you have to realize about Martin, it wasn’t just Martin, it was the strategy he brought, what propelled all of us, this entire nation, into the 21st century,” said Mr. Vivian, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “I like the idea of 50 years. It gives the nation a chance to review the progress or lack of it, in that 50-year period. It also says something to us about meeting every half-century to examine where we are, where we’ve been and what we project in the future.”
One of the “norms” that must be addressed, some say, is out-of-wedlock births in the black community.
Anita MonCrief, a former activist for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, calls herself an ex-liberal and former Obama supporter. She warned that black Americans should be wary of the message of the president and other Democratic leaders if they see government intervention as the primary tool to attack modern social ills.
“Family values are the missing link,” she said. “Liberals took the male out of our family equation. Mothers became the sole breadwinners, so [they were] not there to raise her kids. Today they don’t respect themselves and they don’t respect life itself.”
According to the liberal Brookings Institution, rates of out-of-wedlock births have soared since 1970, a social and cultural upheaval that began well after two landmark legislative results of the 1963 march — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — were signed into law.
“In 1965, 24 percent of black infants and 3.1 percent of white infants were born to single mothers,” a Brookings report said. “By 1990 the rates had risen to 64 percent for black infants, 18 percent for whites.”
Today, 73 percent of black babies are born to unmarried girls and women, and “that means absent fathers. And the studies show that lack of a male role model is an express train right to prison, and the cycle continues,” CNN anchor Don Lemon said during a recent discussion on race relations.
To black leaders such as Robert J. Brown, who was an aide to President Nixon, even the cultural norm of boys and men, whether black or white, wearing sagging pants should be deemed unacceptable.
“You couldn’t pay a kid to have his pants hanging down generations ago,” said Mr. Brown, chairman and CEO of the High Point, N.C.-based B&C Associates Inc. “Somebody would be tearing up their behind. Civil rights activists wore suits and everyone was well-dressed.”