Thursday 18 December 2014

Fifty years after Martin Luther King's 'dream', Obama assesses American progress

Raf Sanchez

Published 28/08/2013 | 11:34

US President Barack Obama Photo: AP

FIFTH years after Martin Luther King shared his dream of an America no longer divided by race, President Barack Obama will deliver his own assessment of the nation's progress towards that goal.

Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday, just as Dr King did on the day of his "I have a Dream" speech in 1963, America's first black president is expected to chart the advances and the setbacks in his country's march away from racial prejudice.

Although the White House has given few clues as to what Mr Obama will say, aides said that he wrote much of the speech himself and that it will aim to connect America's youth with the struggles of the 1960s Civil Rights generation.

"Each generation has an obligation to pick up the baton," Valerie Jarrett, one of Mr Obama's closest advisors, told TIME. "We want young people to feel a sense of responsibility to take that baton and run with it." Mr Obama will acknowledge the strides made since Dr King's time, when segregation was still the norm across the southern United States and civil rights demonstrations were met with police batons and fire hoses.

However, he is also expected to challenge today's Americans to face up to ongoing inequality in wealth and education as well as discrimination in the criminal justice system.

Speaking at a town hall meeting in New York last week, the president appeared to offer a preview of his thinking.

"Each generation seems wiser about wanting to treat people fairly and do the right thing and not discriminate, and that's a great victory that we should all be very proud of," Mr Obama said.

"On the other hand, what we've also seen is the legacy of discrimination, slavery, Jim Crow, has meant that some of the institutional barriers for success for a lot of groups still exist."

In a setting heavy with symbolism, Mr Obama will speak in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln, the president who outlawed slavery. Both Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter will also speak.

Thousands gathered at the same spot on the National Mall over the weekend and heard speeches from Dr King's son, Martin Luther King III, and several of the civil rights leader's closest lieutenants.

Mr Obama's speech comes at a time when racial issues feature prominently in America's national debate.

In June, the Supreme Court effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act, a 1965 law designed to protect minority voters in the historically racist South.

The ruling sets the stage for new battles over voting laws in Republican-controlled states across the country.

Weeks later, a Florida jury electrified the nation by acquitting George Zimmerman, the neighbourhood watch volunteer who killed the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.

The Trayvon verdict prompted Mr Obama to make extensive and unusually personal remarks on race, noting that the Trayvon "could have been me 35 years ago".

He described how as a black man he would be followed in department stores and how women would hold their purses nervously when he joined them in a lift.

"It's important to recognise that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away," he said.

The comments were rare from Mr Obama who, despite his election's place in America's racial history, has largely shied away from the subject. His last major address before that was during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Telegraph.co.uk

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