President Obama's big moment Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech has enormous dramatic potential. It will feature the first African-American president standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to summarize where the nation has been and where it is going on the issue of racial prejudice, America's original sin.
But there is another part of history that will serve as the subtext of Obama's address – two centuries in which America's presidents have largely ignored issues of racial justice and inequality, and in some cases made matters worse. Only two presidents – Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson – achieved massive breakthroughs on race and moved the nation in a sustained way toward tolerance, justice and equality. Obama clearly wants to join their ranks but he has been cautious so far.
Lincoln led the North in the Civil War during the 1860s and signed the Emancipation Proclamation that started the process of ending slavery. A century later, Johnson broke free from his past as a senator from segregated Texas and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as part of his embrace of the civil rights movement.
Yet, as I point out in my book "Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House," even presidents who had the reputation for being pro-civil rights often came up short and insisted on more patience from African-Americans. King rejected this argument in his famous speech 50 years ago. "We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now," King said, in a line that Obama himself has used. "This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism."
Franklin D. Roosevelt was pressured by his wife Eleanor to do more for black Americans but he mostly refused. He argued that Southern barons in Congress would fight him on the New Deal if he moved too aggressively on racial issues, so he largely settled for the status quo. FDR felt that New Deal initiatives providing widespread federal help for those in need would do much to lift African-Americans economically, and he felt that other race-specific actions would have to wait for a more enlightened time. It was Harry Truman, Roosevelt's successor, who braved the fury of racists and ordered the desegregation of the armed forces, bypassing Congress in the process.
John F. Kennedy, who was president during the March on Washington that featured King's historic speech on Aug. 28, 1963, took a long time to recognize the need for urgent action on race. At first, he opposed the march, arguing that it might make matters worse by angering members of Congress who would feel under undue pressure, and Kennedy feared that the march might result in violence. But the march's leaders, including King, persuaded him that the protest would be non-violent, which it was, and they moved the final rally from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial so the protesters would not appear to be threatening the nation's legislators.
On the day of the march, which drew 250,000 persons to the Mall, Kennedy was so impressed that he gave a televised address to the nation and made the case that the civil rights movement was a moral imperative. Kennedy declared, "One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression, and this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free."
This was a follow up to his address of June 1963 when Alabama Governor George Wallace tried to block a schoolhouse door to prevent African American students from entering the University of Alabama—Tuscaloosa. The Wallace incident, coupled with anti-black violence in Birmingham, prompted Kennedy to condemn the oppression of blacks one hundred years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Advocating the most comprehensive civil rights laws in history, Kennedy told the nation, "It is as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the Constitution. The heart of the question is whether ... we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated." Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, and it's unclear how aggressively he would have pushed the civil-rights agenda.
Obama's advisers have made the point that the original March on Washington wasn't only about seeking freedom and justice, it was also about insisting that blacks had good jobs with decent pay. The full name of the event, in fact, was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It's likely that this very practical theme of job creation will be a pillar of Obama's speech Wednesday as he tries to update the magnificent words of King for a new century.
On Friday, he gave what was likely a preview of his Wednesday remarks. Answering a question from an African-American studies professor at Binghamton University in New York, Obama said, "Fifty years after the March on Washington and the 'I Have a Dream' speech, obviously we have made enormous strides. I'm a testament to it, you're a testament to it, the diversity of this room and the students who are here are a testament to it. And that impulse toward making sure everybody gets a fair shot is one that found expression in the civil-rights movement and then spread to include Latinos and immigrants and gays and lesbians."
"What's wonderful to watch," Obama continued, "is the younger generation. Each generation seems wiser about wanting to treat people fairly and do the right thing and not discriminate and that's a great victory that we should all be very proud of. On the other hand, what we've also seen is the legacy of discrimination, slavery, Jim Crow, has meant that some of the institutional barriers for success for a lot of groups still exist. African American poverty in this country is still significantly higher than other groups. The same is true for Latinos, same is true for Native Americans."
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 email@example.com and on Facebook and Twitter.