By Jackie Knight
When I heard that our president would be speaking at the Lincoln Memorial on the 50th anniversary of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, an image as clear as day came to my mind: the speckled black and white film of a man whose words hardly needed a microphone to be heard across the city of Washington D.C.
As I began watching the president’s speech, the Grille was crowded and filled with mind–numbing noise while students of the freshmen seminar gathered for their rock climbing trip and chicken order numbers were called out like bingo night, but as the sound of the president’s voice became recognizable above the chatter, there was a slim moment of respectful silence.
When they flipped to the channel in the Grille that afternoon, Barack Obama had already begun. We caught him mid-sentence with “-life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Those there to hear the speech strained their ears over the radio station’s broadcast of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” as he continued in front of the white marble pillars.
Within a few minutes, the space emptied to a dozen students grouped at tables and a sprinkling of professors, all watching the mounted television screen closely, only breaking contact to take a bite of their hot French fries or make a comment to the person next to them. For the most part, the observers of the speech were content with the conversation of their tablemates, occasionally nodding and letting slip an approving smile.
The president went on to applaud the everyday, unsung citizens who attended the original rally half a century ago, many of whom stood in the bustling audience with their families and friends. Those who gathered were from all walks of life, “seamstresses and steelworkers” alongside “white students who put themselves in harm’s way even though they didn’t have to,” stated the president.
Obama pushed the fact that they were marching not only for civil equality, but also for the ability to get jobs and live comfortably. The citizens who traveled from all over the country were out looking for “not just the absence of oppression, but the presence of economic opportunity,” a search many still find unfulfilled today.
At one point the commander-in- chief admitted that “no man can match King’s brilliance” and on this, with no offense to the president, I must agree. Even through 50-year-old sound equipment and the roar of a riled crowd, King’s voice retains the power to weaken knees and soar souls.
In such monumental shoes, President Obama stood tall as he praised the great changes we’ve made, saying “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.”
He commended civil rights laws and changes in the Senate and Congress. With the words, “and, yes, eventually the White House changed,” a hundred cries that could have toppled a building were set loose from the crowd. Attendees of the speech included a woman holding high a sign reading “I am Denise McNair,” in honor of a victim of a Birmingham church bombing in Sept. 1963. Children perched on the shoulders of their parents. The observers, sweltering by the reflecting pool, caught a glimpse of history remembered.
The president said, “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.”