Obama: Economic Justice 'Remains Our Great Unfinished Business'

Charles Dharapak/AP

Some 50 years after Martin Luther King turned the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, as Rep. John Lewis said, into a pulpit, President Obama stepped onto those same steps and into history. He took the opportunity to talk about not just racial equality, but the economic justice that the original marchers sought.

Those marchers, the president said, sought "not just the absence of oppression, but the presence of economic opportunity." He continued:

For what does it profit a man, King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can't afford the meal? This idea that one's liberty is linked to one's livelihood that, the pursuit of happiness requires the dignity of work, the skills to find work, decent pay, some measure of material security, this idea was not new.

....

King explained that the goals of African Americans were identical to working people of all races. Decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community.

But, Obama said, it is in the realm of economic opportunity where "the goals of 50 years ago have fallen most short."

The racial gap in wealth "has not lessened, it's grown." The president called the dreams of economic opportunity that King described as being "the dream of every American."

recent survey from Pew Research shows that this isn't just political bluster. The survey, which found that many Americans still feel like there's a long way to go to racial equality, showed that in the decades since the first March on Washington, the racial gap in household income has actually increased. The poverty rate for black Americans is also nearly double the white poverty rate, and unemployment among African-Americans has been consistently higher than that of white Americans.

In July, that employment difference was stark: 12.6 percent unemployment for African-Americans, 6.6 for white.

But this isn't just a racial issue. As the president said, "the position of all working Americans, regardless of color, has eroded, making the dream Dr. King described even more elusive."

We must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks could join the ranks of millionaires. It was whether this country would admit all people willing to work hard regardless of race into the ranks of a middle class life.

The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It's whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steel worker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran.

To win that battle, to answer that call, this remains our great unfinished business.

Speaking earlier about King, the president said that his "words belong to the ages," but that "we would do well to recall the day itself also belonged to ordinary people, whose names never appeared in the history books, or got on TV."

"In the face of violence," he said, "they stood up and sat in, with the moral force of nonviolence." These are the people who had learned from "a lifetime of indignities...that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us."

As Obama often does, he pointed to the younger generation as a promise of success to come--both on racial equality and economic justice:

For the young are unconstrained by habits of fear. Unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dare to dream differently, to imagine something better.

Just slightly earlier in the afternoon, former President Bill Clinton brought in the political, saying that "a great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon."

The civil rights legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. that was hailed by presidents today is only one part of the man himself. But the more radical King has largely been ignored.

You can read Obama's full remarks here.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download
  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.