“We are a people trying not only to solve the problems of the present: unemployment, inflation – but we are attempting on a larger scale to fulfill the promise of America. We are attempting to fulfill our national purpose, to create and sustain a society in which all of us are equal.” – Barbara Jordan, 1976 Democratic National Convention
Today, 50 years ago on the eve of the greatest social protest our nation has witnessed, one of our preeminent scholars and a founder of the NAACP, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, reached his sunset. Far away in Accra, Ghana, a place of solitude and retreat from American racism, Dr. DuBois died just hours before masses of Black people assembled in the seat of government power for the March on Washington. The death of the man who defined the problem of the 20th century as that of the “color line” right before the greatest civil rights demonstration in history was a poignant reminder of the enormous burden upon the nation’s civil rights leadership.
Tomorrow on the official anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington the nation’s first African-American President will take part in a ceremony commemorating the historic event. It will be an opportunity for President Obama to cement his own civil rights legacy and leave no doubt about his intent to use the remainder of his time in office to eliminate the vestiges of racism that have persisted since the Great March. For a President who carries the dual burden and expectation of presidential leadership and blackness, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington provides an occasion to speak with clarity, purpose and conviction.
The President of the United States is not a civil rights leader but he is the leader of the most formidable democracy of present day. In his remarks at the Lincoln Memorial, standing in the place where African-American leaders presented the grievances and expectations of their oppressed masses five decades ago, President Obama must channel the spirit and courage of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but speak with the force of then Vice President Lyndon Johnson during his address at Gettysburg on May 30, 1963.
Standing on the soil of the bloodiest confrontation in American history, a war between the North and South over the right of Black people to live free, a white southerner spoke truthfully to the American dilemma of racism. Marking the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, President Lyndon Johnson declared, “Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men's skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact. To the extent that the proclamation of emancipation is not fulfilled in fact, to that extent we shall have fallen short of assuring freedom to the free.” His words remain the most powerful expression on the contradiction of America by a United States vice president or president in history.
It is time for President Obama to muster the courage, yes courage, to talk to America in such a forthright manner. The equivocation must stop. The political correctness must cease. The calculations must be set aside. We need this President to speak to the nation honestly and with conviction, and challenge us to commit to eliminate the barriers to the full participation of African-Americans as American citizens once and for all. We need to hear from the first Black President that he sees “race,” understands the debilitating effect of structural racism and lingering impact of white supremacy, and is clear that it is the responsibility of our government to honor the blood shed for freedom on the battlefield at Gettysburg. On the 50th anniversary of the event that shaped the civil rights generation, we need a President to feel the presence of King and the burden of Lincoln, and rise to the occasion in the manner of an LBJ.
We can only come this way but so many times before our nation succumbs to its own sins. The day is fast approaching when the words of a President will not matter because the people will lose hope. The hour is fast approaching when no piece of legislation will correct past injustices and forestall future harm because “We the People” will have lost faith in the democracy. The time is upon us when order will be replaced by anarchy, and the call for patience will fall upon deaf ears and the legacy of nonviolence by those gathered on August 28, 1963 will be replaced by the righteous and justified anger of a generation that will call the nation on its hypocrisy. The world is watching and waiting to see if the United States of America is heading the way of the Roman Empire, too strong for its own good, too drunk with power to recognize its demise.
We need a President to speak to us tomorrow.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.