And the Negro's name,
Is used it is plain,
For the politician's gain,
As he rises to fame
It’s not that hard to see why the media went out of their way to connect last Sunday’s Inaugural Celebration Concert at the Lincoln Memorial with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
From the eloquent articulation of a dream by a preacher-turned-political activist, to the realization of that dream by an equally eloquent community organizer-turned-president, you couldn’t have orchestrated a more defining set of bookends to mark a more transformative period in American history. Frankly, the media would have been castigated had they not connected the dots.
The most obvious comparison between the March on Washington and last week’s Inaugural Celebration Concert centered around geography, specially a pristine pool that begins at the base of the monument erected for our first president and ends roughly a mile later at the base of a stone temple consecrated for the man who served as our nation’s 16th commander in chief.
But to compare King’s address to the 250,000 people who assembled at the Lincoln Memorial on 23 August 1963 with Sunday’s concert simply because Obama was blessed with a crowd of similar size on that same, hallowed ground is not only ill founded, it does a disservice to the dream.
The truth is that the March on Washington wasn’t a celebration at all. It was a conflict narrowly averted. While King had reached a peace with the “Big Six”—as the six prominent civil-rights leaders were called—SNCC and CORE, two of the more militant factions of the movement, saw the March as a way of challenging what they believed to be a lack of support for civil rights by the Kennedy administration. For them, the speech King planned to deliver erred on the side of appeasement, rather than accountability.
Said another way, when King stepped behind the podium that warm August day he was stepping into a battle—both literally and figuratively.
Last Sunday’s Inaugural Celebration Concert, however, was anything but. So concerned about “how far we’ve come as a country,” the organizers allowed a emphatic sense of harmony to reduce this star-studded 3-hour event to nothing more than a cavalcade of stars burning brightly against a carefully lit marble backdrop.
And in all the pomp and circumstance surrounding Obama’s inauguration, the media fell into the same seductive trap as the rest of us. They got caught up in all the hoopla, and in the process failed to place the true measure of King’s prophetic proclamation on race in America in its proper context.
No disrespect to Steve Carell, Kal Pen, Jack Black, Marisa Tomei and Ashley Judd—all fine actors indeed—but it was painfully clear their involvement was more of a repayment for their financial contributions to the Obama campaign than a true recognition of an investment in any social cause beyond perhaps which Inaugural Ball they planned to attend.
And then there was the entertainment. The 1963 March on Washington featured performances by Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, Josh White, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Each of these artists played a vital role in shaping and redefining not just civil rights, but human rights.
Bob Dylan performed several songs at the 1963 March on Washington. Among them, “Only a Pawn in Their Game.”
Yet with the notable exception of Stevie Wonder and Pete Seeger, the biggest role the performers who graced the stage Sunday played in the civil rights movement was their ability to recall the past trials and tribulations of the artists and activists who actually attended the 1963 March.
Bono, Bruce and Beyoncé are all compelling entertainers to be sure. But endearing homage does not equal the contributions made by those who actually affect change, no matter how heartfelt thei accolades may have been.
Let’s be clear. Drawing a historical parallel between Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama is perfectly in bounds. The MLK “I Have a Dream” speech has been taught in social studies classes for the last four decades, and rightly so. It remains a pitch-perfect piece of oratory given at precisely the right moment in history. Obama’s ascension to the highest office in the land is equally monumental—a moment of mixed gravitas and giddiness not just for ‘Black America,’ but a moment of immense gratification for all Americans.
So if I’m not taking issue with King, Obama or the events that elevated and celebrated their place in our nation's history, what then am I taking issue with? Actually, it isn’t the media’s linking these moments together that’s raised my ire, it’s the monument.
The Civil Rights Movement has often been compared to a game of chess. This past Sunday’s event, though light in substance, was dead on in terms of design.There was a Bishop (Rev. V. Gene Robinson), a King (Martin Luther King III), and a Queen (Queen Latifa).
But what about the pawn—the very centerpiece of this ungrateful grunt? I would submit the pawn in this 200-year-old game was none other than the man at whose feet they stood.
Yes, that’s right. Abraham Lincoln was a pawn in Obama’s game, just as he was a pawn in Dr. King’s March on Washington some 46 years before. Polished up, propped up and pimped out.
Yet despite the transparent attempt to manipulate and maneuver his memory like some paonic piece on the chessboard, in the final analysis perhaps this grunt is for naught. I doubt Lincoln would have minded the part he ultimately played in what is unquestionably the most overdue endgame in American politics…
On the stone that remains,
Carved next to his name,
His epitaph plain:
Only a pawn in their game.