Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Spirit that was Lost in the Ceremony

There was an abundance of impressive oratory at yesterday's ceremony to honor the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. As is often the case with oratory, much of it could not be easily accepted as sincere. I thus have to, once again, acknowledge the better judgment of BBC News in inviting Tavis Smiley to offer his impressions of the event. Smiley was interviewed by Katty Kay, who deserves considerable credity for letting him speak his piece with neither interruption nor effort to warp what he was saying.

The bottom line is that Smiley felt it was more important to address the principles that had guided the life of Martin Luther King, rather than to try to abstract everything down to the moment at which he delivered his "I have a dream" speech. Smiley asserted that those principles could be expressed in terms of three evils that needed to be overcome: racism, poverty, and militarism. In this respect it was important to consider how many of the speakers could both acknowledge how much progress had been made in getting beyond those evils of racism that dominated much of the United States in 1963 and recognize many of the ways in which racist attitudes were still a factor, particularly when it came to the practice of politics. To his credit, President Barack Obama was one of the speakers to take this realistic point of view.

However, that may be about the only credit he deserves for a lecture that took more time and had less to say than any of the speechifying that had preceded him. The question of poverty was, for all intents and purposes, ignored. Not to ignore it would have required recognizing that the overall economic divide was far wider now than it had been in 1963 and that the extent of poverty may be more devastating than it has ever been in the history of the United States.

The real dead moose on the table, however, was King's opposition to militarism. This got him into a lot of trouble with the United States government during his lifetime, because it meat that he was speaking out against the Vietnam War with the same eloquence that he was speaking out against racism. In this case, however, anyone who has been following the news with even half a mind knew full well why Obama would not touch this aspect of King's beliefs with a ten-foot pole. We all knew that, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he would be whisked back to the White House to resume deliberations on what actions the United States would take against Syria, with or without debating the matter before the United Nations.

Of all those who provided the first round of reactions to Obama's speech, Smiley was the first to talk about that dead moose; and those of us who continue to try to honor King's principles owe a great debt of gratitude to Kay and her production team for allowing Smiley to express his perspective with such convincing clarity and passion.

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