It’s rare for a single speech to be a harbinger of change; Obama’s remarks at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesburg aren’t likely to be that renowned. Nevertheless, the president wisely used his pulpit to preach Mandela’s legacy to world leaders both in attendance and at home.
“We, too, must act on behalf of justice,” the president said. “We, too, must act on behalf of peace. There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality.”
On this, the president is spot-on correct: the modern world, though rich in technological and scientific advances, still has vast pockets of deep, dehumanizing poverty, entire nations in some cases. Leaders who do not use their influence to lessen that gap — to feed the hungry, to clothe and house the poor, to educate the ignorant — fail at an irrevocable task.
Examples exist across the globe, from North Korea to Russia, from Cuba to many South American nations, from China to the United States, where politicians in Washington and in statehouses such as ours in Montgomery too often let ideology stunt their humanity.
Poverty and inequality aren’t limited to those on the fringes of democratic ideals.
In recent years, researchers have shown how the income gap in the United States has grown since the onset of the Great Recession. America’s middle class has taken gut punches, yes, but in most cases it’s nothing like the plight of the poor — in our cities, in our rural counties, in our small towns.
Though he wasn’t, Obama could have been talking to our Congress or our state Legislature.
We hold scant hope that leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un will be swayed by the president’s Johannesburg speech. Their politics are too entrenched in repression to be so easily altered. But Obama’s words nonetheless resonate: We must act on behalf of peace.