President Obama and many of the invited speakers gave highly partisan speeches in the style of an election campaign at the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on Sunday. Many of the speakers also described the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement as a continuation of King's legacy.
“The young people of the Occupy movement all over this country and throughout the world are seeking justice,” Martin Luther King, III, son of Martin Luther King, Jr., said. Justice was the main theme throughout his speech.
In many of Obama's speeches he has said the wealthy need to pay their “fair share” when it comes to taxes. Martin Luther King III also sounded this theme when he said the OWS movement was seeking “justice for everyone who are simply asking the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s daughter, the Rev. Bernice King also spoke. “When our father was taken from us, he was in the midst of starting a poor people's campaign where he was galvanizing poor people from all walks of life to converge on this nation's capital and stay here and occupy this place until there was change in the economic system and a better distribution of wealth.”
One of the themes of the OWS Movement is that the top one percent of the country (in wealth and prestige) have too much control over the nation's levers of power and make life more difficult for the rest of the 99 percent of the population. This theme was also dominant at the MLK Memorial Dedication Service.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson tied the 99 percent theme to that of slavery. He told the audience to “remain focused on being the rope of hope for those in the hull of the ship, the 99 percent.”
“Forty-three years after Dr. King planned an occupation on this same spot, he would say to the Occupiers at Wall Street, the movement that's gone global, you are the children and offspring of Dr. King's poor people's campaign ... in that legacy, keep protesting,” Jackson said.
The dedication ceremony had been delayed due to the earthquake that struck Virginia and Hurricane Irene that battered the East Coast in August. Bernice King suggested that those events may have been brought by God so that the dedication ceremony could tie itself to the OWS movement.
“Perhaps God wanted us to move beyond the dream into action, and maybe we were unable to dedicate this monument on August 28 because of that and maybe He's saying to us, it's time to readjust,” Bernice King said.
Dan Rather, former news anchor for CBS, suggested that the OWS movement is getting little coverage, or unfair coverage, by the news because of prejudices in the media against the movement, much like coverage of the Civil Rights Movement was skewed by prejudicial attitudes toward blacks.
“Once again, we have Americans on the outside looking in. This time, many people of all races and creeds feel stuck in a rickety, rudderless boat of economic injustice and are struggling to make their voices heard. Many in white America supported desegregation, but didn't support the demonstrations and passive resistance ... This created a kind of ambivalence on the part of many white Americans and it gave some unscrupulous figures in local, state and federal government the opportunity to skew the news and press coverage their way. Does this not sound familiar?” Rather said.
Andrew Young, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and mayor of Atlanta, complained about the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steegal Act, which separated commercial banking and investment banking.
“Republicans changed that,” Young said of the repeal that was passed by a Republican-led Congress and signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton. “The problem in banking and finance, we have too much integration,” Young said chuckling while the audience laughed.
“Just like we won the battle of voting rights, we can win the battle of economic rights, and that's what Martin Luther King would have you do now, and the first step to that is to keep a president in office that basically has your interest at heart. And if we don't do that this year, God help us,” Young said.
Two leaders of American companies, Dan Akerson, General Moters chairman and CEO, and Tommy Hilfiger, founder of Tommy Hilfiger Corporation, spoke between the speeches, denouncing corporations and the concentration of wealth. They both served on the board that brought the memorial to fruition.
Obama headlined the event. In recent months, black political leaders had voiced complaints that Obama, whose 2008 campaign theme was “hope and change,” had not been working hard enough on issues of concern for black communities. Part of Obama's speech seemed aimed at those concerns.
“First and foremost let us remember that change has never been quick. Change has never been simple or without controversy. Change depends on persistence. Change requires determination. It took a full decade before the moral guidance of Brown vs. Board of Education was translated into the enforcement measures of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but those 10 long years did not lead Dr. King to give up. He kept on pushing, he kept on speaking, he kept on marching until change finally came.”
Obama never explicitly mentioned the OWS Movement, but sounded some of its themes when he said, “As was true 50 years ago, as has been true throughout human history, those with power and privilege will often decry any call for change as divisive. They'll say any challenge to existing arrangements are unwise and destabilizing. Dr. King understood that peace without justice was not peace at all.”
The service ended with a prayer by the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was pastor.
“We hear [King's] voice, not only here, but wherever the cry for freedom and human dignity goes out, from Tahrir Square to Wall Street, from a winding road in Damascus where people cry out against tyranny to a prison yard in Jackson, Georgia, where people dared to cry out for human rights and civil rights with the simple phrase, 'I am Troy Davis.' In their voices we hear Dr. King say injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Warnock prayed.