Obama’s March on Washington Speech Lacked Structural Analysis

Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

On Wednesday, thousands gathered at the National Mall to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

On the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, President Barack Obama keynoted the weeklong celebrations of the March on Washington. Here is a little bit of what he said.

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BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, a voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes. Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed, and yes, eventually the White House changed.

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NOOR: Now joining us to talk about this speech and the March on Washington and what it means today is Anthony Monteiro. He’s a professor of African-American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Thank you so much for joining us.

ANTHONY MONTEIRO, PROF. AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDIES, TEMPLE UNIVERSITY: Thank you very much.

NOOR: So, Professor Monteiro, can we get your reaction to President Obama’s speech and the clip we just played, where he draws a direct line between the civil rights movement, King’s speech, and his own presidency?

MONTEIRO: Well, it was a very cynical effort to connect himself and his presidency to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and of the great civil rights and black power movements. However, when one examines his administration, you have to conclude that King and Barack Obama have nothing in common except the fact that they are African-American men.

NOOR: So, Professor Monteiro, several times in this weeklong commemoration of the March on Washington, and even in President Obama’s own speech today, mass incarceration, the unequal opportunity and unequal access to jobs that African Americans face today was mentioned. But what was not mentioned was who is responsible for carrying out these policies, and even in many cases escalating these policies that are responsible for these phenomena? What’s your response to that?

MONTEIRO: Yeah. Well, as usual, President Obama can mention the problem, but he can’t mentioned solutions to the problem or adequate solutions to the problem. And they’re very simple.

I mean, for example, we know that part of the problem of the stagnating economy is that people don’t have any money. Put money in the hands and pockets of working people and of poor people and of black people. But his administration has been committed to saving the banks, saving the 1 percent, saving Wall Street, saving General Motors and Chrysler, and not doing a thing about the bankruptcy of Detroit or the extreme poverties in our big cities.

So it’s superficial. It’s almost like phrase mongering, because he does not ever address the question of solutions to these problems. And as the president, one would think that he has the power to begin to put forward an agenda of solutions. He never does it.

NOOR: And one connection, one historical reference, I’d say, that hasn’t really been raised or I haven’t heard in this week of commemorations of the March on Washington is the influence of W. E. B. Du Bois on Dr. King’s increasingly radical economic vision and the fact that W. E. B. Du Bois, he passed away the day before the March on Washington took place in 1963. He passed away on August 27. What’s the connection? What is that connection?

MONTEIRO: Well, in one sense it’s a symbolic passing of the baton from Du Bois and his generation to King and that generation. Now, that is not a small matter, because W. E. B. Du Bois died in Ghana. Before leaving this country to live the rest of his life in Ghana, he made a statement that capitalism as a system was unsustainable and that rather than be a mechanism for the ending of racial inequality, it reproduces racial inequality.

King would ultimately arrive at a similar conclusion. King would call, by 1966 and 1967, for a social-democratic reorganization of the American economy, one that would put people before profits. At the same time, King, only a few years after the March on Washington, would embrace the anti-war, anti-imperialist position that Du Bois had taken and for which Du Bois was indicted as an enemy of the nation, as a agent of a foreign government.

So it is quite significant, this connection between W. E. B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr.

NOOR: So we talked about King’s increasingly radical economic vision, but that was also tied in to his critique of U.S. foreign policy. We’ll play a clip of a speech King gave in 1967.

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REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: The bombs in Vietnam explode at home. They destroy the dream and possibility for a decent America.

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NOOR: So, Professor Monteiro, that clip started, “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home.” Now, today, we could exchange Vietnam for Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan.

MONTEIRO: There’s no question about it.

King’s increasingly radical economic and antipoverty and working-class positions were connected to his growing opposition to the war in Vietnam and to American militarism.

King was presenting, especially in that Riverside Church speech, a human rights agenda, in fact, a global human rights agenda. And he was linking the fight for human rights and labor rights and the rights of black people to the struggle for human rights and national independence throughout the world. He had been an advocate and a supporter of African independence for at least a decade. He was present at the independence celebration of the first black African nation to achieve independence, Ghana, and he gave a very moving speech entitled “The Birth of a New Nation”. By the time he gives the speech in 1967, he was convinced that not only was America on the wrong road in terms of its domestic, economic, and social policies, but it was on the wrong road in terms of its foreign policies, which he argued were increasingly driven by the interests of the military-industrial complex.

This relates directly to President Obama’s foreign policy. If Lyndon B. Johnson was unacceptable to Martin Luther King and a large part of the civil rights movement, Barack Obama, who is even to the right of Lyndon B. Johnson–at least Lyndon B. Johnson did not have a kill list and a drone war policy–if Lyndon B. Johnson was unacceptable to the civil rights movement in 1967, Barack Obama cannot be embraced by those who are genuinely concerned about civil rights and the interests of the poor.

NOOR: Professor Monteiro, thank you so much for joining us.

MONTEIRO: Thank you very much.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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