It was practically the impossible dream, to think that President Obama could
match the oratorical greatness of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”
speech—even on the 50th anniversary of its delivery at the March on Washington.
I would have been happy with something like a “state of the state of race in
America” speech. But perhaps that would have been too policy-oriented for the
So I’m settling for this: that the president did not forget us–Asian Americans.
He was as inclusive in his speech as the modern fight for equality and justice
is in our 21st Century America.
This is no small thing.
Only Congressman John Lewis was so inclusive to say: “We may have come here on
different ships, but we are all in the same boat now. So it doesn’t matter if
we’re black or white, Latinos, Asian Americans or Native American, gay or
straight, we are one people, we are one family, we all live in the same house.
Not just an American house but the world house.”
So many speakers would simply say, “African American, Latino…”
And not Obama. It’s as important a detail as anything else, this list. It’s what
I call “the litany of the people.”
And Obama was pretty clear about how it included all of us, by linking us to the
marchers of 50 years ago.
Said the president: “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…”
It’s a mouthful. But it was necessary.
Indeed, it was what I found the most instructive part of his speech because he
talked about empathy.
Examples: The native born who recognize the pain of the striving immigrant.
Or interracial couples who connect with the pain of a gay couple being
discriminated against and see it as if their own.
“That’s where courage comes from,” said the president, “when we turn not from
each other, or on each other, but towards one another, and we find we do not
walk alone. That’s where courage comes from…And with that courage, we can stand
I felt that at the march on Saturday, when I was standing there and letting the
crowd come to me as I took photos and talked to marchers. It’s how I connected
with Todd Endo, who marched 50 years ago, and marched on this anniversary with
three generations of his family. (Listen to the exclusive
podcast with Todd Endo.)
Left to right: The Endo family–Paula Endo (wife of Todd Endo), Erik Endo (son),
Aidan Endo, 13 (grandson), Greg Johnson (nephew), Marsha Johnson (sister), and
Todd Endo, who marched 50 years ago.
Obama’s speech was good. Maybe not a great one–yet. But even Dr. King’s speech
took some time before historians deemed it “great.” No one was fawning over “I
have a dream” on August 29, 1963.
What will determine greatness for Obama’s words will be the actions he takes
from here on. Voting rights? Affirmative Action? Let’s see if this speech
becomes the catalyst for decisive policy moves.
I didn’t hear any other phrase or speaker that might capture the imagination.
(Maybe Rev. Bernice King’s rant?) So at this event, it was important that Obama
acknowledge that 50 years later, we’re talking Civil Rights 2.0.
I know how much is different because I remember 52 years ago, when this picture
In my living room in San Francisco, I stood in front of a symbol of American
attainment, a TV set with rabbit ears, and all in black and white.
Just like the race issues.
But as Asian Americans, my family was affected just the same. We were a Filipino
American family living in the only place we could in San Francisco–the African
American section, the Fillmore district. Next to the Japanese Americans. My
father was a cook. Not a chef. A union cook. He had survived the tough
anti-Filipino period in California in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s– decades in
which Filipinos endured everything from epithets and lynching to
As a child, I was protected by my parents from all that.
I remember cheering for the Giants who won the National League pennant in 1962
behind my African American idols, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey.
They were my MLKs.
I vaguely remember the march as a major TV event, but King wasn’t one of the
leaders. Frankly, I remembered even more a TV event later that year featuring
Caroline Kennedy (who was at today’s ceremony). She was a child, like me, when
her father was assassinated in November.
So I know how 50 years have passed, and that much has changed.
Filipino Americans, Asian Americans, blacks, and others are part of a large
middle class, threatened but still there.
And our society is an explosion of diversity, which makes race issues more
complicated than ever.
Fifty years later, the litany has expanded. Obama recognized that in his speech
and urged us to have the courage to stand together.
Sounds like a simple thing. But on this day, it was plenty.