Over the weekend there was a lot of coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington(which is tomorrow) where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his "I have a dream speech." I listened to some of the clips from the speeches and read a lot on the coverage of that much smaller event.
I had four impressions.
#1 - When you re-read the "I have a dream" speech you get a sense that Dr. King was particularly blessed that day. His rhetoric was soaring. The main premises were well thought out, but at least according to contemporaries, King extemporized throughout the speech which added substance to an already well done speech.
William Safire at one point did an analysis of the speech and argued that several of the key phrases and some of the cadence can be traced back to earlier speeches by other political figures in our history. Bill was not making a criticism rather he was making the point that some of the best speeches build off others. If Bill's analysis was correct, it does not take away from the impact that King produced.
#2 - The rhetoric over the weekend was not soaring but pedestrian. I am not sure why Al Sharpton is presented as one of the leaders of the African American community. But he showed himself again as a clumsy buffoon. An initial premise of Dr. King's speech was that a good deal of the responsibility for civil rights came from self help. That trend came from earlier leaders in the African American community like Booker T. Washington, Frederic Douglas and even A. Phillip Randolph (who spoke in 1963). Sharpton tried to make the same point in at least two instances. In one (trying to make the point that disrespect for personal dignity is not a way to develop) he defamed two of the icons of the civil rights struggle (Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer). He also made the point that "We need to give them (young men in the African American community) dreams again, not to worry about sagging pants, but sagging morality" He never seemed to get the point that many of the things he has supported contribute to that sagging morality.
#3 Eric Holder described the broadening of the concept of civil rights - "Our focus has broadened to include the cause of women, of Latinos, of Asian Americans, of lesbians, of gays, of people with disabilities. And of countless others across this great country who still yearn for equality" - which just about sums up the errors of political correctness. Most of the people at the rally over the weekend believe that civil rights are created by dividing rather than unifying. As Al Gore once remarked they believe that "e pluribus unum" means "out of one many" which is exactly the opposite of the meaning of one of the key phrases in our national lexicon.
#4 - Finally, as I reflected on both the 1963 march and the one over the weekend I wondered whether the key issues that Dr. King was trying to addressed have been morphed with 50 years of policies which create more dependence rather than independence. Sharpton used a particularly powerful analogy that Dr. King used about collecting on the debt of equal protection under the law and turned the phrase to sound like his main goal was to get a lottery payoff.
Clearly, in spite of the rhetoric over the weekend, the country has made significant progress in assuring equal protection under the law. And just as clearly, the mountaintop which King used as his final metaphor has not been achieved. But at least some of the restraint from achieving the goals has been created by public policies which inhibit ultimate progress and low bar rhetoric of this generation of "leaders."