By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — The sequel rarely lives up to the original, and those commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington never had a chance.
“It won’t be as good as the speech 50 years ago,” President Obama told an interviewer.
Obama fulfilled his prediction. His 29-minute address, 12 minutes longer than King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, was at times moving, but — inevitably — unremarkable compared with the legendary oratory he was memorializing.
The first African-American president, who had just turned 2 when King gave his iconic speech, is a fulfillment of King’s dream, and many of the buttons, T-shirts and posters for sale at the event featured images of the two men side by side. But Obama gave this only passing reference, telling the rain-soaked crowd that “because they kept marching, America changed … and, yes, eventually the White House changed.”
Instead of trying to compete with history, Obama reconciled himself to this less purposeful time. “We may never duplicate the swelling crowds and dazzling procession of that day so long ago,” he said. “No one can match King’s brilliance. But the same flame that lit the heart of all who are willing to take a first step for justice — I know that flame remains.”
Wednesday’s celebration at the Lincoln Memorial was thoroughly modern in its profusion of causes and its excesses. There were no speeches likely to live beyond a news cycle or two, but there were awesome T-shirts featuring photographs of Rosa Parks and Beyoncé as “Positive African-American Women.” There was no cause with the unifying force of the civil rights struggle, but there were performances by bare-chested Maori warriors and Bahamians in birdlike costumes dancing The program for the original march had just 10 speeches; the lineup for Wednesday’s celebration listed nearly 60. Less, in this case, was more. Wednesday’s orators wandered across a vast terrain: the disabled, gay rights, Asian-Americans, the environment, climate change, Jews, the labor movement, D.C. voting rights, Egypt, Libya, Syria, stop-and-frisk policies, stand-your-ground laws, health care reform and voter I.D. laws. “Let’s ring our bell for clean water!” proclaimed one of the speakers, from the Captain Planet Foundation. Republican officials skipped the event, which took a partisan turn when two speakers rallied the crowd with Obama’s campaign cheer, “Fired up! Ready to go!”
The celebrity speeches, and emcees Soledad O’Brien and Hill Harper, gave the proceedings an Oscar-night aura. “I see a man walking out on the stage signaling my time is up,” 91-year-old Joseph Lowery, a civil rights giant, told the crowd.
The original march was a challenge to the established order. The sequel was a rally of the powerful, including three presidents. There were special entrances for “ticketed guests.” There was a $132-per-person “I Have a Dream” brunch at the Willard Hotel (with “commemorative Martin Luther King keepsake”).
“Fifty years ago, when they came to Washington, it was not for an event,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told the crowd. “It was in the middle of a struggle.”
This time, it was more of an event. Hawkers sold “Let Freedom Ring” commemorative tickets, Obama coin banks and pink buttons saying, “Hot chicks dig Obama.” One T-shirt had an altered photo of King addressing the March in a Trayvon Martin hoodie. Another showed Obama’s head atop a mountain that also had the visages of King, Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, Colin Powell and Muhammad Ali.
But the light crowd disappointed the vendors, who cut their prices for rain ponchos. The crowd, a fraction of the quarter-million who massed 50 years ago, only gradually filled in around the reflecting pool.
Most of the speeches were forgettable: the NAACP’s Ben Jealous getting tangled up in a metaphor (“as the top of that ladder has extended, the tethered at the bottom must be unleashed”) and Oprah Winfrey offering cliches about bells tolling, standing on others’ shoulders and making “the dream live on.” Jimmy Carter mentioned the support he got from the King family in ‘76. Bill Clinton spoke about health care reform.
Rising above it all was Rep. John Lewis, the 73-year-old Georgia Democrat who, as a civil rights leader, spoke at the original march, too. “When I look out over this diverse crowd and survey the guests on this platform,” he told the audience, “it seems to realize what Otis Redding sang about and what Martin Luther King Jr. preached about: This moment in our history has been a long time coming, but a change has come.”
It took a voice of ‘63 to give real meaning to ‘13.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.