Drawing parallels between civil rights legend Martin Luther King Jr. and his own leadership challenges, President Obama on Sunday dedicated a memorial to King on the Mall by saying King would have sympathized with activists demanding social justice from Wall Street.
“At this moment, when our politics appear so sharply polarized and faith in our institutions so greatly diminished, we need more than ever to take heed of Dr. King’s teachings,” said Mr. Obama, who praised King’s belief in the “creative tension of nonviolent protests.”
“If he were alive today, I believe he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there,” the president said. “Those with power and privilege will often decry any call for change as divisive. They’ll say any challenge to the existing arrangements are unwise and destabilizing. Dr. King understood that peace without justice was no peace at all.”
Mr. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama joined Vice President Joseph R. Biden, his wife, Jill, and numerous civil rights figures for the dedication on the sun-splashed Mall. The ceremony had been postponed from late August owing to Hurricane Irene.
Noting that King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the Mall took place nearly 50 years ago, the president said the nation has made great strides since then in gaining economic and civil justice for all citizens.
“Look at the faces here around you, and you see an America that is more fair and more free and more just than the one that Dr. King addressed that day,” Mr. Obama said. “We are right to savor that slow and certain progress.”
But Mr. Obama, who has been criticized by black leaders for the slow economic recovery and a 16.7 unemployment rate among blacks, reminded the crowd that King “wasn’t always considered a unifying figure.”
“Even after rising to prominence, even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King was vilified by many, denounced as a rabble-rouser, and an agitator, a communist and a radical,” said Mr. Obama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. “He was even attacked by his own people, by those who felt he was going too fast or going too slow.”
The president, who has called himself an “underdog” in his re-election bid owing to the weak economy, said King’s achievements did not come easily or swiftly, but the civil rights leader persevered.
“I raise all this because nearly 50 years after the march on Washington, our work, Dr. King’s work, is not yet complete,” Mr. Obama said. “And so as we think about all the work that we must do, rebuilding an economy that can compete on a global stage, fixing our schools so that every child, not just some, but every child gets a world-class education, making sure that our health care system is affordable and accessible to all and that our economic system is one in which everybody gets a fair shake, and everybody does their fair share, let us not be trapped by what is. We can’t be discouraged by what is. We’ve got to keep pushing for what ought to be.”
The president’s voice caught with emotion as he concluded his speech by praising King’s vision of a more just and fair America.
“He had faith in us, and that is why he belongs on this Mall,” Mr. Obama said. “As tough as times may be, I know we will overcome. I know there are better days ahead. I know this because of the man towering over us.”
While the day was a celebration of the legacy of the late civil rights leader, some Democrats used it as an opportunity to politicize the event and engage in partisan attacks.
Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young told the crowd at the memorial that the GOP was to blame for the recent banking crisis, tracing it back to the repeal in 1999 of provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act that had separated investment banks from commercial banks.
“Republicans changed that, and now this thing is all messed up,” Mr. Young said.
The repeal was approved by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate, including a majority of Democrats in both chambers, and was signed into law by President Clinton.
Mr. Young also urged the audience to vote for Mr. Obama in 2012, saying the president’s re-election is needed to ensure economic justice “just like we won voting rights.”
“The first step of that is to keep a person in office who basically has your interests at heart,” Mr. Young said.
Rep. Steve Israel, New York Democrat and chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign operation, issued a statement saying that “Republicans around the nation are waging an radical, ideological assault against voting rights” even as the King memorial was being dedicated.
“Americans will stand up and fight back against Republicans’ efforts to disenfranchise millions of voters,” Mr. Israel said.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who led a march Saturday in Washington, said those calling for social justice will carry on King’s work at the ballot box.
“Justice is not 1 percent of the country controlling 40 percent of the wealth,” Mr. Sharpton said. “Just like Dr. King talked about occupying Washington, just like there are those occupying Wall Street, we are going to occupy the voting booth. We are going to take those in that stand up for justice, and retire those that stand in the way. You will not take away the Voting Rights Act, you will not take away the Civil Rights Act.”
Some of Mr. Sharpton’s remarks appeared to be aimed at Mr. Obama, who last summer expressed a willingness to trim entitlement benefits in debt-reduction talks with the GOP.
“You will not cut back on Medicaid and Medicare to bargain down those rich trillionaires that ran this country into deficit,” Mr. Sharpton said. “And now you want us to balance the budgets on what is our [entitlement] programs. That’s why when we line up to vote, don’t make this partisan, when you mess with Social Security. This is not about Obama, this is about our mama. We’re going to vote like we never voted before.”