The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 1, 2013

Looking deeper in Obama's MLK speech

Why it matters: While some will focus on perceived divisiveness in the speech, we see areas where we can agree and be inspired if given the chance.

The Mankato Free Press

---- — Following President Obama’s speech during the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in Washington DC, conservative commentators were focusing on these words from the president:

“We shouldn’t fool ourselves. The task will not be easy. Since 1963, the economy has changed. The twin forces of technology and global competition have subtracted those jobs that once provided a foothold into the middle class — reduced the bargaining power of American workers. And our politics has suffered. Entrenched interests, those who benefit from an unjust status quo, resisted any government efforts to give working families a fair deal — marshaling an army of lobbyists and opinion makers to argue that minimum wage increases or stronger labor laws or taxes on the wealthy who could afford it just to fund crumbling schools, that all these things violated sound economic principles. We’d be told that growing inequality was a price for a growing economy, a measure of this free market; that greed was good and compassion ineffective, and those without jobs or health care had only themselves to blame.

“And then, there were those elected officials who found it useful to practice the old politics of division, doing their best to convince middle-class Americans of a great untruth — that government was somehow itself to blame for their growing economic insecurity; that distant bureaucrats were taking their hard-earned dollars to benefit the welfare cheat or the illegal immigrant.”

These commentators were quick to accuse the president of using the event to push his agenda. The Wall Street Journal said the president was using a “moral bludgeon against those who disagree with his policies” and characterizing his opponents as “Gordon Gekko without the social conscience.” But we call attention to what immediately followed the words by the president, an observation in which many of differing viewpoints could agree on:

“And then, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways, as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support — as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.

“All of that history is how progress stalled. That’s how hope was diverted. It’s how our country remained divided. But the good news is, just as was true in 1963, we now have a choice. We can continue down our current path, in which the gears of this great democracy grind to a halt and our children accept a life of lower expectations; where politics is a zero-sum game where a few do very well while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking economic pie — that’s one path. Or we can have the courage to change.”

We would encourage people to focus on another passage from Dr. King, spoken six months before he was assassinated.

“If a man is called to be a street-sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry.

He should sweep streets so well, that all the hosts of heaven will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

More succinctly, look first to yourself.