Asian Americans not forgotten by Obama 50 years after March on Washington, Dr. King’s Speech
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 occasion.
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 together…”
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 was taken.
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 anti-miscegenation.
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.