WASHINGTON: Standing on hallowed ground of the civil rights movement, President Barack Obama challenged new generations Wednesday to seize the cause of racial equality and honor the “glorious patriots” who marched a half-century ago to the very steps from which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke during the March on Washington.
In a moment rich with history and symbolism, tens of thousands of Americans of all backgrounds and colors thronged to the National Mall to join the nation’s first black president and civil rights pioneers in marking the 50th anniversary of King’s I Have a Dream speech. Obama urged each of them to become a modern-day marcher for economic justice and racial harmony.
“The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice but it doesn’t bend on its own,” Obama said, in an allusion to King’s own message.
His speech was the culmination of a daylong celebration of King’s legacy that began with marchers walking the streets of Washington behind a replica of the transit bus that Rosa Parks once rode when she refused to give up her seat to a white man.
At precisely 3 p.m., members of the King family tolled a bell to echo King’s call 50 years earlier to “let freedom ring.” It was the same bell that once hung in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where four black girls were killed when a bomb planted by a white supremacist exploded in 1963.
Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a former freedom rider and the sole survivor of the main organizers of the 1963 march, recounted the civil rights struggles of his youth and exhorted America to “keep the faith and keep our eyes on the prize.”
The throngs assembled in soggy weather at the Lincoln Memorial, where King, with soaring, rhythmic oratory and a steely countenance, had pleaded with Americans to come together to stomp out racism and create a land of opportunity for all.
White and black, they came this time to recall history — and live it.
“My parents did their fair share and I feel like we have to keep the fight alive,” said Frantz Walker, a honey salesman from Baltimore who is black. “This is hands-on history.”
Kevin Keefe, a Navy lawyer who is white, said he still tears up when he hears King’s speech.
“What happened 50 years ago was huge,” he said, adding that there’s still progress to be made on economic inequality and other problems.
Two former presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, spoke of King’s legacy — and of problems still to overcome.
“This march, and that speech, changed America,” Clinton declared, remembering the impact on the world and himself as a young man. “They opened minds, they melted hearts and they moved millions — including a 17-year-old boy watching alone in his home in Arkansas.”
Carter said King’s efforts had helped not just black Americans, but “In truth, he helped to free all people.”
Still, Carter listed a string of current events that he said would have spurred King to action in this day, including the proliferation of guns and stand-your-ground laws, a Supreme Court ruling striking down parts of the Voting Rights Act, and high rates of joblessness among blacks.
Former President George W. Bush didn’t attend, but said in a news release that Obama’s presidency is a story that reflects “the promise of America” and “will help us honor the man who inspired millions to redeem that promise.” A spokesman said the former president declined to attend because he was recovering from a recent heart procedure.
His father, former President George H.W. Bush, 89, also has experienced various health problems in recent years and did not attend.
Oprah Winfrey, leading the celebrity contingent, recalled watching the march as a 9-year-old girl and wishing she could be there to see a young man who “was able to force an entire country to wake up, to look at itself and to eventually change.”
“It’s an opportunity today to recall where we once were in this nation,” she said.
Courage and sacrifice
Obama used his address to pay tribute to the marchers of 1963 and that era — the maids, laborers, students and more who came from ordinary ranks to engage “on the battlefield of justice” — and he implored Americans not to dismiss what they accomplished.
“To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest — as some sometimes do — that little has changed, that dishonors the courage, the sacrifice, of those who paid the price to march in those years,” Obama said.
“Their victory great. But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete.”
Civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams, whose husband Medgar Evers was murdered in 1963, said that while the country “has certainly taken a turn backwards” on civil rights, she was energized to move ahead and exhorted others to step forward as well.
More work to do
King’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, just 5 when his father spoke at the Mall, spoke of a dream “not yet realized” in full.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do but none of us should be any ways tired,” he said. “Why? Because we’ve come much too far from where we started.”
Organizers of the rally broadened the focus well beyond racial issues, bringing speakers forward to address the environment, gay rights, the challenges facing the disabled and more. The performers, too, were an eclectic crowd, ranging from Maori haka dancers to LeAnn Rimes singing Amazing Grace.
Jamie Foxx tried to fire up a new generation of performers and ordinary “young folks” by drawing on the example of Harry Belafonte, who stood with King 50 years ago.
“It’s time for us to stand up now and renew this dream,” Foxx declared.
Forest Whitaker told the crowd it was their “moment to join those silent heroes of the past.”