50 Years Later

August 28, 2013

Today marked the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington that included Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech (the photo is one I took last year of the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, D.C.). King's speech remains a powerful, inspiring, and needed message. Hopefully in the midst of all of the celebrations, people will take time to read, listen to, or watch it. Yesterday, I played the full 17-minute speech in my Communication Criticism course and then led the students in using the speech to do a mini-rhetorical analysis (with a focus on thinking about issues of text/context). A large crowd gathered at the site of the 1963 event (in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.) to celebrate the March, the speech, and the civil rights movement in general. Among the speakers: Representative John Lewis who spoke at the event in 1963, several of King relatives, former President Jimmy Carter, former President Bill Clinton, and President Barack Obama (neither former President George H. W. Bush nor former President George W. Bush could make it due to health issues). Carter noted at the start of his comments that he would not have been president without King and the civil rights movement - a point I made in my latest book on . At 88, Carter delivered one of the most passionate and fiery addresses at the event. Clinton had the misfortune of speaking next and seemed quite flat in comparison. The rally included the ringing of a bell from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that was bombed less than a month after the March on Washington (and hundreds of churches across the world joined in ringing bells at the same time). Obama spoke later, which served as both a positive and ironic symbol. On the one hand, Obama's presence honored King (whose 1963 rally did not include a president present) and embodies how far our nation has come since King's time. On the other hand, it seemed ironic to have the nation's leader give a speech with generic platitudes to honor King who prophetically challenged the nation's leaders.

Perhaps Obama did not want to capture the spirit of King, who railed against war and militarism, since Obama is currently prepping to launch a military intervention in Syria. Obama's administration is currently engaged in a lot of sabre-rattling in hopes of stirring up fear since most Americans currently oppose the idea of military intervention in Syria's civil war. Fortunately, there are some voices - many of them religious leaders like King was - who are publicly challenging Obama's war rhetoric. The Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby group, has been actively mobilizing against military action in Syria. Other religious groups have also joined the effort (as I noted while in Washington, D.C., earlier this month with the Mennonite Central Committee - Washington Office). Robert Parham challenged Obama's war rhetoric in an Ethics Daily column today. And Baptist, Methodist, and Reformed church leaders in Great Britain issued a statement against the possibility of military action in Syria. In the statement, they argued:
We also pray for wisdom and discernment from political leaders in Britain and other nations. We urge them to take time for careful consideration and resist hasty response. Syria has experienced a cycle of violence for too long. We pray that our nation's response will be guided by the desire to achieve peace and urge our leaders to work with as wide as possible a range of regional partners and with the United Nations.
The question is whether or not Obama will listen to the prophetic voices speaking in the nonviolent spirit of King.