President Obama's planned speech at the Lincoln Memorial to mark the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream" address is expected to focus new attention on civil rights and racial prejudice, two issues that Obama has mostly avoided until recently.
Obama, the first African-American president, is scheduled to address a rally on Aug. 28 to commemorate King's speech and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place on Aug. 28, 1963, and drew 250,000 people. This year's event is called "Let Freedom Ring," and it is designed to underscore the need for jobs and equal justice for all.
Obama has recently been talking about racial issues more frequently and in more personal terms than he did for most of his first term. He offered a very personal response to the acquittal of volunteer neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in the Florida murder trial for the killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. Obama said, "Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago."
Obama added that he understands the concerns that black men have about racial profiling since he experienced it himself earlier in his life. "There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store," the president said. "That includes me."
He has also expressed dismay because the Supreme Court recently ruled that an important part of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. Civil rights leaders said this was a setback for their movement.
After the Trayvon Martin verdict, Obama borrowed some famous words from Abraham Lincoln and said he wanted to "encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions."
But he will have a challenge living up to King's stirring address from 50 years ago, which is considered one of the great speeches of American public life.
In a particularly memorable passage, King declared, "…[W]hen we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.'"
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Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook and Twitter.