Since the White House announced that President Barack Obama will speak to the nation on Wednesday from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech, I have been peppered with the same questions again and again: Is it appropriate for the president to occupy that sacred space? Does Obama have the moral authority to speak where King spoke? Does anyone? My honest answer to these questions: I don't know. But here is what I do know. The future of our democracy is inextricably linked to how seriously we take King's legacy. A legacy of unarmed truth and unconditional love. A legacy of brilliant prose and prophetic witness.
The president's decision to honor the march is proper and commendable. But when he stands where King stood and delivers a speech of his own, he inevitably invites comparisons between his words and King's. I hope Obama rises to the challenge to be truly King-like, not just King-lite. His speech cannot be full of great sound bites but devoid of sound public policy.
Obama's election in 2008 was a good down payment on King's dream of racial equality, but it did not fulfill the dream. Instead of lecturing black audiences about personal responsibility, as he so often has, now is the time for the president to bear witness to the unrelenting pain and suffering of his most loyal constituency — a constituency still denied true economic freedom by institutional and structural barriers that have yet to be addressed, much less alleviated.
Following the recent not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, the president did finally give voice to the struggle for human dignity that black men in particular endure almost daily. “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. That includes me,” Obama said. And the decision this month by Attorney General Eric Holder to no longer seek mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses — citing the “shameful” racial disparities in sentencing — is smart public policy.