Obama: My speech ‘won’t be as good’ as Dr. King’s

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US President Barack Obama visits the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on April 9, 2011.
US President Barack Obama visits the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on April 9, 2011.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama’s speech to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington has been highly anticipated since he announced it: the  nation’s first African-American president in the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous speech.

Aware of the significance, Obama was quick to lower expectations in an interview he gave on Tuesday. Obama told Tom Joyner & Sybil Wilkes that he’s still working on the speech he’ll give Wednesday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and that no one should expect a speech quite as impressive as Dr. King’s.

“Let me just say for the record right now, it won’t be as good as the speech 50 years ago. I just want to get that out there early,” he said. “Because when you are talking about Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington, you’re talking about one of the maybe five greatest speeches in American history.  And the words that he spoke at that particular moment, with so much at stake, and the way in which he captured the hopes and dreams of an entire generation I think is unmatched.”

“And so all I can do on an occasion like this is just to celebrate the accomplishments of all of those folks whose shoulders we stand on and then remind people that the work is still out there for us to do, and that we honor his speech but also, more importantly in many ways, the organization of the ordinary people who came out for that speech,” he added. “We honor them not by giving another speech ourselves–because it won’t be as good–but instead by just doing the day-to-day work to make sure this is a more equal and more just society.”

The president also acknowledged that his own accomplishment–becoming the first African-American man to inhabit the White House–is not enough to achieve the “dream” and that if he were around today, Dr. King would probably believe more work still needed to be done.

“I think that Dr. King would be amazed in many ways about the progress that we’ve made,” he said.

“What he would also say, though, is that the March on Washington was about jobs and justice,” he added. “And that when it comes to the economy, when it comes to inequality, when it comes to wealth, when it comes to the challenges that inner cities experience, he would say that we have not made as much progress as the civil and social progress that we’ve made, and that it’s not enough just to have a black president.”

“The question is, does the ordinary person, day-to-day, can they succeed,” he continued. “And we have not made as much progress as we need to on that, and that is something that I spend all my time thinking about, is how do we give opportunity to everybody so if they work hard they can make it in this country.”

That’s a sentiment a majority of Americans apparently agree with too, according to a NBC/WSJ poll released in July which found only a slight majority of all Americans–and not even one-in-five African-Americans–believe that Dr. King’s dream has been realized.

When asked about the anniversary of the March on Washington during an event at Binghamton University last week, the president spoke about the importance of increasing access to quality education as a tool to help achieve greater equality in this country.

His response was thorough:

And even if there weren’t active discrimination taking place right now–and obviously, we know that some discrimination still exists, although nothing like what existed 50 years ago–but let’s assume that we eliminated all discrimination magically, with a wand, and everybody had goodness in their heart. You’d still have a situation in which there are a lot of folks who are poor and whose families have become dysfunctional because of a long legacy of poverty, and live in neighborhoods that are run down and schools that are underfunded and don’t have a strong property tax base. And it would still be harder for young people born into those communities to succeed than those who were born elsewhere.

So if, in fact, that’s the case–and that is what I believe–then it’s in all of our interests to make sure that we are putting in place smart policies to give those communities a lift, and to create ladders so that young people in those communities can succeed. 

Well, what works?  We’ve already talked about what works. Early childhood education works. We know that can make a difference. It’s not going to solve every problem, but it can help level the playing field for kids early in life so that–they’re still going to have to work hard. Not everybody is going to succeed, but they’ll have a better chance if we put those things in place. 

Making college affordable–that makes a difference. Because we know, in part because of the legacy of discrimination, that communities of color have less wealth.  If they have less wealth, it means that mom and dad have a more difficult time financing college.  Well, we should make sure that every young person, regardless of their color, can access a college education. 

I think the biggest challenge we have is not that we don’t know what policies work, it’s getting our politics right.  Because part of what’s happened over the last several decades is, because times have been tough, because wages and incomes for everybody have not been going up, everybody is pretty anxious about what’s happening in their lives and what might happen for their kids, and so they get worried that, well, if we’re helping people in poverty, that must be hurting me somehow, it’s taking something away from me.

And part of what I think we have to understand is that America has always been most successful, we’ve always grown fastest, and everybody’s incomes have gone up fastest when our economic growth is broad-based, not just when a few people are doing well at the top, but when everybody is doing well.

That message is similar to the one Obama regularly made on the campaign trail last year, and in political speeches since, but it’s also very similar to the message Dr. King advocated at the 1963 march, which was focused on jobs and justice. In that famous speech, King spoke of “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners” someday sitting “together at the table of brotherhood.” Today Obama hopes to see them enjoying the same economic successes as well.

Obama is just one of many speakers who’ll take part in Wednesday’s “Let Freedom Ring” event, including former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Civil rights leaders including Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network, National Urban League President Marc Morial, and NAACP President Ben Jealous will attend as well, along with other political figures ranging from Caroline Kennedy to Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Marcia Fudge. Celebrities will be on hand along with Oprah Winfrey, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, and Robby Novak, better known as “Kid President.”

Rep. John Lewis, who was the youngest speaker at the 1963 march, will also be in attendance. He is someone the president specifically reached out to for help crafting his big speech, according to a senior administration official who told NBC News the president called Lewis in order to help capture “the feeling of the moment.”

Obama: My speech 'won't be as good' as Dr. King's

Updated