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Step by Step, the Longest March

It’s been a while, hasn’t it, since Your Humble Blogger wrote about political rhetoric? I didn’t write about the last set of conventions, or about the inauguration, I don’t think. I still watch and listen and read, you know. I just haven’t felt I had much to actually say. Y’all should probably read Paul Waldman over at the Prospect—do any Gentle Readers remember him from college? Because I… don’t. Anyway.

I did want to talk about Our Only President’s speech yesterday marking on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the March for Jobs and Justice. The event, of course, has gone down in history as the I Have a Dream moment; Martin Luther King. Jr. gave what is certainly in the top five American speeches. We forget that he was perhaps the most unpopular man in America on that day, and for years afterward as well. It’s very much worth reading Jamelle Bouie over at the Daily Beast on this history, and the future of the history, as is were. One of my complaints about the history of that history is—well, I’ll just quote myself, shall I?

The story we tell ourselves about the Civil Rights movement is that Rosa Parks just suddenly refused to move to the back of the bus, and then Martin Luther King had a dream, and then suddenly everybody realized that segregation was wrong. What’s wrong with that story has nothing to do with the greatness of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. It has to do with erasing everybody else, and all the work that a whole movement put in for decades. It has to do with erasing our own history—our history as white people, as black people, as Hispanics, as Jews, as Northerners or Southerners or Midwesterners, what we were doing at the time, and for years and years before and after.

So that’s the context in which we came to the 28th of August, 2013. A lot of people had done good work in trying to broaden our memory of the March—newspapers and bloggers and radio people, too—but they were all fighting against the established Story of What Happened, which is that MLK, Jr. had a Dream and told us what to do, and then the civil rights movement was over. That, in fact, is the context in which Our Only President ran for the office he now holds and won it. The context of the Single Great Man, the ceiling-breaker, the One. And he pretty much called bullshit on all of that.

He reminded us that … that day itself also belonged to those ordinary people whose names never appeared in the history books, never got on TV. The men and women who stood up and sat in, who lived through boycotts and voter registration drives and smaller marches far from the spotlight. He talked about the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement as the accomplishments of all the people who marched.

And because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, a Civil Rights law was passed. Because they marched, a Voting Rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes. Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed, and, yes, eventually, the White House changed.

Because they marched, America became more free and more fair—not just for African Americans, but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans; for Catholics, Jews, and Muslims; for gays, for Americans with a disability. America changed for you and for me. and the entire world drew strength from that example, whether the young people who watched from the other side of an Iron Curtain and would eventually tear down that wall, or the young people inside South Africa who would eventually end the scourge of apartheid.

And then, again, he talks who it was that marched: those maids, those laborers, those porters, those secretaries… men and women without rank or wealth or title or fame. Just people. Anybody.

Our Only President uses we or us or our or ourselves 64 times in the speech. I and me only ten times. He only mentions Dr. King eight times. It's a speech about us, about everybody and anybody who wants to be part of that us. But of course we can't be part of the people who were there 50 years ago. That was a small group, really, when you look at it, a happy few, even at the time. And now, here we are, in the millions, watching over the internet. How can we be part of that us?

That tireless teacher who gets to class early and stays late and dips into her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that every child is her charge—she’s marching.

That successful businessman who doesn't have to but pays his workers a fair wage and then offers a shot to a man, maybe an ex-con who is down on his luck—he’s marching.

The mother who pours her love into her daughter so that she grows up with the confidence to walk through the same door as anybody’s son—she’s marching.

The father who realizes the most important job he’ll ever have is raising his boy right, even if he didn't have a father—especially if he didn't have a father at home—he’s marching.

The battle-scarred veterans who devote themselves not only to helping their fellow warriors stand again, and walk again, and run again, but to keep serving their country when they come home—they are marching.

Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day—that change does not come from Washington, but to Washington; that change has always been built on our willingness, We The People, to take on the mantle of citizenship—you are marching.

I have said that anyone who wants to take up Dr. King's mantle needs to find a way to tie us all together in a single garment of destiny, to speak to us all in ways that we can hear and respond to, that include us and embrace us both as individuals and as groups and as a people. To make his speaking about us, not about him—to make, somehow, it about us through him and about him through us. Barack Obama at his best—here and here, for instance—places his audience as the center of his rhetorical mission, and himself at their head. Yesterday, at that moment, standing in history's footsteps, he was able to put his audience—and all of us, when we are willing—at the center of his rhetorical mission without putting himself at the head of it, using his position (and what a position!) to bring all the force of that rhetoric to bear without making it about himself at all. No Great Man, not Barack Obama, not Martin Luther King, Jr., but all of us together.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,