President Barack Obama used his address marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington to push elements of his economic agenda as the unfinished business of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream.”
The first African-American president said that while progress on civil rights is undeniable and changed the world, the march’s push for economic justice has been obscured and has stalled.
“For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?” Obama noted.
“It’s along this second dimension of economic opportunity, the chance through honest toil to advance one’s station in life, where the goals of 50 years ago have fallen most short,” he said.
Obama also lamented today’s politics and said it must change.
“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,” he said.
“We’d be told that growing inequality was a price for a growing economy, a measure of the 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.”
Obama said, however, that the lesson of the march is that people can change the country when they come together.
“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 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. The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history; that we are masters of our fate.”