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.