"When you think about the coalition that brought about civil rights, it wasn't just the folks who believed in racial equality," Obama said. "It was people who believed in working folks having a fair shot. It was Walter Reuther and the UAW coming down here because they understood that if there are some workers who are not getting a fair deal, then ultimately that's going to undercut their [own] ability to get a fair deal." The point, he stressed, "is that America has always worked better when everybody has a chance to succeed."
Aides say the president has been heavily influenced by the writings of Harvard's Robert Putnam, who has argued that class issues are more daunting today than race issues. In the interview, he cited Putnam's theories on growing inequality, something Obama believes has been made worse by the recession. "Everything I am proposing and everything I will be proposing over the next three years goes right at that issue," said Obama in the interview. He added, "And racial tensions won't get better; they may get worse, because people will feel as if they've got to compete with some other group to get scraps from a shrinking pot."
Noting the Trayvon Martin verdict has provoked another national conversation about race, Obama said the true debate should be about jobs, suggesting that would be in the tradition of King. It has been widely reported that soon after becoming president, Obama placed a bust of King in the Oval Office. But less well-known is that he imported something else: a framed original of the program from the 1963 March on Washington, now on his bookshelf. "I always remind people," he told The Times, "that was a march for jobs and justice, that there was a massive economic component to that."
The linkage is welcomed by today's civil-rights establishment, leaders troubled by the stubbornness of the recession in the African-American community but encouraged by the latest White House moves. They read that Times interview and they listened to Obama's jobs speech in Galesburg, Ill., and they liked what they saw and heard. It wasn't that the president outlined any new proposals — he didn't. It was that he talked openly about what he called in his speech "this growing inequality" and declared, "Reversing these trends has to be Washington's highest priority." These are words many civil-rights leaders had wanted to hear in his second Inaugural Address and his State of the Union speech this year.
And the movement leaders underscored the jobs and justice connection when 17 of them — representing groups including the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the National Council of La Raza — came to the White House on Tuesday. Ostensibly, they were there to talk about the Supreme Court's evisceration of the Voting Rights Act. But with black unemployment at an unacceptable 14.3 percent, first they wanted to talk about jobs.