King and Obama
Posted on August 29, 2013
Rereading Martin Luther King’s speech from 50 years ago, it is a remarkable piece of rhetorical wonder.
The New York Times ran a front-page story on it yesterday.
King’s speech struck a chord because it went narrow and deep.
It spoke specifically of a vexing problem: the persistent, violent and inhumane treatment of black people in America.
There was no sugar-coating in Dr. King’s speech.
He didn’t name names, but he did name a particular region of the country: The South.
And what he said was as direct as it was forceful: We have had enough of this crap.
Of course, King made the point with the magic of poetry enshrouded in the mysticism of spiritualism.
He called forth for help from the almighty, mostly through allusion, to a specific goal: Let my people go.
And it doing so, he joined his struggle with the deepest, most lasting struggle in Western Civilization: That of Moses and the Israelites.
King didn’t try to let anybody of the hook. He knew who the sinners were and he let those sinners understand that the only way they could be free of their sins was by letting his people be free.
And he painted a stark picture of redemption.
“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able 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 the words of the old negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
I know it’s not fair, but the President's remarks yesterday were a complete disappointment in comparison:
- Where Dr. King spoke in poetry, Obama spoke in prose.
- Where Dr. King struck a deep spiritual chord, Obama’s speech seemed political.
- Where Dr. King struck narrow and deep, Obama was shallow and wide.
- Where Dr. King spoke from the terrifying reality of real life experience, Obama seemed to faking it, as if he were playing a role.
- Where Dr. King spoke for the ages, Obama spoke for the day.
- Where Dr. King’s speech was fearless, Obama’s was cautious.
I understand completely that this comparison is not fair, that a President has a different role and different responsibilities than a leader of a movement.
But I still think the President’s speech was flat, unemotional, shallow and not in any way moving.
He seemed like he was trying to compete with history, but he simply couldn’t measure up.
Nobody could measure up.
King was speaking for the Ages. Obama can longer move us simply with words.
He has more than a bully pulpit. He controls the levers of powers.
Words are only important if you can’t act.
But Mr. Obama is the President. Of course, he can act. That’s his job.
Many pundits have tried to link Obama’s remarks with that of Lyndon Johnson.
But nobody remembers what LBJ said. They remember what he did.
Because actions trump words, every single time.