Obama seeks MLK aura at monument dedication

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

President Barack Obama wrapped himself and his 2012 political campaign in Rev. Martin Luther King’s aura Sunday as he emotionally urged his many disappointed supporters to push on for “change.”

“Let us draw strength from those earlier struggles … change has never been quick, change has never been simple or without controversy … change requires determination … change can come if you don’t give up,” Obama declared in a speech at the ceremony formally opening the new statue of Rev. King in Washington, D.C.

The opening of the China-designed and Chinese-built monument to King had been scheduled for August, but weather forced a delay until today. Before his speech, Obama also put signed copies of his 2009 inauguration speech and his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention into a time-capsule to be buried at the site.

The political tone of Obama’s commemoration speech matched the galvanizing language he uses in talks to supporters at fundraisers.

It also included coded appeals to three of his critical voting blocs — African-Americans, the progressives protesting in New York’s Wall Street and other cities, and Hispanics, who have been hit hard by the 2008 collapse of the property bubble.

For African-Americans, his appearance at the event and his repeated invocation of King’s statements were an appeal for support from other African-Americans, whose enthusiasm for Obama has cooled as their unemployment rate rises above 15 percent. That’s a critical danger for Obama, because any fall-off in African-American turnout would doom his hopes of winning the critical states of Virginia and North Carolina.

“Dr. King’s work is not complete. We gather here at a moment of great challenge and great change … in the first decade of the century, we have been tested by war, by tragedy and economic crisis,” Obama said. “When meeting with hardship, when confronting disappointment, Dr. King refused to accept the ‘is-ness’ of today. He kept pushing towards the ‘ought-ness’ of tomorrow … we can’t be discouraged by what is,” he declared.

For Hispanics, Obama declared that he would continue King’s efforts for “social justice.” Obama said his goals include “freeing many Americans from their own prejudices, freeing Americans of every color from the depredations of poverty.”

“We have a duty to fight against poverty even if we are all well off … [and] to show compassion to the immigrant family,” he said.

For the progressive street protestors who claim to represent the public’s rising economic fears, Obama indicated his support by citing a statement that King made about the radicals of the 1960s. King believed in “the oneness of man.” Obama said, and “it was that insistence, rooted in his Christian faith, that led him to tell a group of angry young protesters, ‘I love you as I love my own children,’ even as one threw a rock that glanced off his neck.”

However, Obama also called on the protestors to moderate their protests, which threaten to paint them — and Democrats  — as radicals. “If he were alive today, I believe [Rev. King]  would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there,” Obama said.

Americans “can argue about the size of government without questioning each others’ love of country … [King] would call on us to see the best in one another,” he said.

That’s a very different message from Obama’s stump-speeches, which often imply that Republicans are unpatriotic for opposing his preferences. On Sept. 14, for example, Obama told the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that “If we’re being honest, we know the real problem isn’t the members of Congress in this room … It’s the members of Congress who put party before country.”

Obama’s speech also echoed the same mix of warnings and appeals that are now part of Obama’s recent fund-raising speeches.

“Every bit of progress that’s been worth making has been a struggle — whether it was civil rights, or women’s rights, the movement to expand educational opportunities to all,” Obama said at a Sept. 26 fundraiser held at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, Wash. “There have been points at every juncture where it’s been discouraging. People have felt like, well, maybe things can’t happen. Maybe we’re stuck … So I need you guys to shake off any doldrums,” he declared.