Fifty years after the Rev. Martin Luther King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech, one thing is certain: Racial segregation has receded; racial suspicions have not.
A half-century after the first March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I was moved emotionally by the history-making sight of this nation’s first African-American first family waving to a cheering crowd under the serene gaze of my favorite president, Abraham Lincoln.
Then, a second thought hit me: Too bad there’s only one Republican on that stage.
Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly also noticed. “Today’s event excluded black Republicans and conservatives,” he barked. “All the speakers were Democrats. That was a glaring error and does not indicate a desire for inclusion.”
I agree with O’Reilly about the optics, if not much else. Both the organizers and leading Republicans, according to various reports, say the omission resulted from an unfortunate combination of bad timing and miscommunications, not from any intent by either side to snub the other.
Event organizers said they invited top Republicans, all of whom declined to attend. That tends to be confirmed by GOP leaders reached by Roll Call, CQ, the Washington Post and other media. Former Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush are both recovering from medical conditions. Leading Republicans in both houses of Congress cited scheduling conflicts. Most are back home with full schedules of public events.
That’s not hard to believe in a town that is famous for things falling through cracks. Top congressional Democrats didn’t make it, either.
Even so, the absence of the Party of Lincoln from the Lincoln Memorial on this day was an embarrassment to both sides. After all, how can we Americans claim to pursue peace in the rest of the world if we can’t get along in Washington?
Besides, with some Republicans on stage we might perhaps have heard fewer Democratic Party talking points and more come-together talk of national unity and bipartisanship. Remember those days?
The absence of Republicans symbolized how much more polarized our racial politics have become since King’s day. Senate Republican Leader Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, for example, forged the coalition with President Lyndon B. Johnson that turned the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law — over the fierce objections of Southern segregationist Democrats.
Even if GOP leaders had shown up at the memorial to their party’s first president, they might well have faced a harder time from the right wing in their own ranks than from anything the liberal-leaning crowd would have expressed.
Looking back, it is easy to see how King’s speech was a turning point. It marked the beginning of the end for legal segregation by race and the beginning of his much tougher crusade against poverty — and racial suspicions.
Yet we also can see that the civil rights revolution drew our attention away from a quieter economic revolution that was transforming America: globalization. The industrial jobs that built America’s postwar middle class began to erode in the 1960s, producing wage stagnation. The civil rights movement ironically opened doors that enabled blacks to duplicate among themselves the same wealth and income gaps between rich and poor that divide white Americans. In recent decades those gaps among all Americans have been growing faster.
In his own address, the president would have had a hard time matching King’s riveting oratory, so he didn’t even try. He even lowered expectations a day earlier on “The Tom Joyner Morning Show,” warning that it “won’t be as good as the speech 50 years ago.”
And if he seemed a bit detached, he might have had a few other things on his mind, like Syria. How awkward it must have felt to be contemplating a new military action in the Middle East while honoring King, who in his blistering 1967 speech against the war in Vietnam excoriated “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”
It wouldn’t be easy for anyone to match the majesty of King’s “dream.” Still, I would have been impressed if the nation’s first African-American president offered us more of a plan to implement that dream. Even gridlock has some soft spots.
E-mail Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.