President Barack Obama today urged America to continue fighting for the equal nation Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned as he delivered a rousing speech marking 50 years since the activist’s iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ address.
Speaking from beneath the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., the president celebrated how far America has come since Dr King’s speech on August 28, 1963, which gave a ‘mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions’. But he said there was still much to be done to honor the lives that were lost during the civil rights movement.
‘They did not die in vain,’ he said to the crowds gathered below. ‘Their victory was great. But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency.’
He added that economic inequality–in which black unemployment is nearly twice that of white unemployment–and a country where many citizens still struggle to afford healthcare ‘remains our great unfinished business’.
‘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,’ he said. ‘And with that courage we can stand together for good jobs and just wages . . . for the right to healthcare . . . for the right of every child to get an education that stirs the mind and captures the spirit and prepares them for the world that awaits them.
‘America, I know the road will be long but I know we can get there. We will stumble but I know we’ll get back up.’
Throughout his speech he mentioned how the nation improved ‘because they marched’ in 1963, and at the end of his speech he urged people to ‘keep marching’.
‘No one can match King’s brilliance, but the same flame that lit the heart of all who are willing to take a first step for justice, I know that flame remains,’ he said.
‘That tireless teacher who gets to class early and stays late and dips into her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that every child is her charge, she’s marching.
‘That successful businessman who doesn’t have to but pays his workers a fair wage and offers a shot to a man, maybe an ex-con, who’s down on his luck, he’s marching.
‘The mother who pours her love into her daughter so she grows up with the confidence to walk through the same doors as anybody’s son, she’s marching.
‘The father who realizes the most important job he’ll ever have is raising his boy right, even if he didn’t have a father, especially if he didn’t have a father at home, he’s marching.
‘The battle scarred veterans who devote themselves not only to helping their fellow warriors stand again and walk again and run again but to keep serving their country when they come home, they are marching.
‘Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day, that change does not come from Washington but to Washington. The change has always been built on our willingness. We, the people, to take on the mantle of citizenship, you are marching.’
Obama previously said that half a century after the march was a good time to reflect on how far the country has to go, particularly after the Trayvon Martin shooting trial in Florida. The devastated parents and brother of the slain teen also attended the D.C. event on Wednesday.
Although more than 20,000 people are believed to have attended the event, more than 100,000 were expected. The number far dwarfs the 250,000 to one million that took part in the original March on Washington; 200,000 of these then witnessed the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
Ahead of Obama’s speech, famous faces appeared on the stage, including actor Jamie Foxx, Oprah Winfrey and Rev. Al Sharpton, while Leann Rimes and Natalie Grant gave singing performances.
Peter and Paul, from the singing trio Peter, Paul and Mary, took to the stage to sing the Bob Dylan hit ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ which they sung in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 – a performance that turned the song into an anthem for interracial relations.
But notably absent from the speakers’ stage was the nation’s only black senator, Republic Representative Tim Scott of South Carolina.
There were also impassioned addresses from former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, who commented on America’s unfinished business, with Clinton saying: ’A great democracy does not make it harder to vote than buy an assault weapon.’
‘It is time to stop complaining and put our shoulders against the stubborn gates holding the American people back,’ he said. ’We must push open those stubborn gates . . . While racial divides persist, the whole American landscape is littered with the dashed hopes of all races.’
President Carter gave thanks to Dr King not for just helping to freeing black people but for ‘helping to free all people’.
‘He was the greatest leader that my native state–and my native country–has ever produced and I was not excluding presidents and the founding fathers when I said this,’ he said. ‘There’s a tremendous agenda ahead of us and I’m thankful to Martin Luther King that his dream is still alive.’
The former leaders were joined on the stage–where King delivered his speech 50 years ago–by the civil rights activist’s closest family members, including his sister, daughter, son and friend, Rep. John Lewis–an original freedom rider who appeared alongside Dr King at his 1963 speech.
‘We are not going to be discouraged, we are not going to be distracted, we are not going to be defeated,’ his sister, Christine King Farris, said of the continued fight for equality.
In his speech to the crowd, Rep. John Lewis shared his memories of the time and the country’s progress since.
‘When I look out over this diverse crowd, it seems to realize what Martin Luther King preached about,’ he said. ‘This moment in our history has been a long time coming but a change has come.
‘We have come a great distance in this country in the 50 years but we still have a great distance to go before we fulfill the dream of Martin Luther King.’
Of Dr King, he added: ‘He taught us the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non violence. He taught us to stand up, to speak up, to speak out, to find a way to get in the way… He changed us forever.’
But he added there still remained injustices.
‘We must never give up, we must never ever give in, we must keep our eyes on the prize,’ he said. ‘We are one people, we are one America. We all live in one house . . . When we finally accept this as true, then we will be able to fulfill Martin Luther King’s dream–to live in a community.’
Sites in nearly every state rang bells at 3 p.m. their time on Wednesday or at 3 p.m. EDT, the hour when King delivered his speech. Commemorations were planned from Washington to the far reaches of Alaska, where participants rang cow bells along with church bells in Juneau.
It was a fitting tribute in reference to King quoting from the patriotic song, ‘My Country ’tis of Thee.’
King implored his audience to ‘let freedom ring’ from the hilltops and mountains of every state in the nation, some of which he cited by name.
‘When we allow freedom to ring–when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, Free at last, free at last, great God almighty, we are free at last,’ King said.
The speeches on Wednesday came after thousands of people took to the streets in Washington D.C. to march for ‘Jobs and Justice’.
In stirring scenes, people from across the country cheered and shook hands as they marched towards the Washington D.C. monument, retracing the steps Dr King and other civil rights activists took during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963–which also happened to be a Wednesday.
To mark its 50th anniversary, cities across the U.S. remembered Dr King and reiterated his message of economic justice, racial equality and hope.
International commemorations were held at London’s Trafalgar Square, as well as in Japan, Switzerland, Nepal and Liberia. London Mayor Boris Johnson has said King’s speech resonates around the world and continues to inspire people as one of the great pieces of oratory.
Some of the sites that hosted ceremonies were symbolic, such as the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas, a monument to the landmark Supreme Court case that outlawed segregated schools in 1954. Bells also rang at Lookout Mountain in Tennessee and Stone Mountain in Georgia, a site with a Confederate memorial that King referenced in his speech.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker’s office planned to join the commemorations by ringing a ‘virtual bell’ online. Meanwhile in Baltimore, a performer reenacted King’s ‘Dream’ speech at City Hall.
Although Dr King was shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee, five years after his speech, many believe that Obama’s election as the first African-American U.S President was a giant step towards his dream being realized.
The march and its effects are credited with helping pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, both of which insured equal rights for all U.S. citizens.
The President himself credits the actions of people like King for the opportunity to become the current incumbent at the White House.
Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s senior advises, said of the President: ‘He stands on the shoulders of Martin Luther King, and the sacrifices that King made that make a President Obama possible are deeply humbling to him,
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said: ‘Tomorrow, just like 50 years ago, an African-American man will stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and speak about civil rights and justice.
‘But afterward, he won’t visit the White House. He’ll go home to the White House. That’s how far this country has come. A black president is a victory that few could have imagined 50 years ago.’
For Obama, the march is a ‘seminal event’ and part of his generation’s ‘formative memory.’
A half century after the march, he said, is a good time to reflect on how far the country has come and how far it still has to go, particularly after the Trayvon Martin shooting trial in Florida.
A jury’s decision to acquit neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in the 2012 fatal shooting of the unarmed, 17-year-old black teen outraged blacks across the country last month and reignited a nationwide discussion about the state of U.S. race relations.
The response to the verdict also raised expectations for America’s black president to say something about the case.
Obama spoke out to help people understand black outrage over the verdict. He spoke about personal experiences from before he became a well-known public figure, such as being followed in department stores and hearing the click of car doors being locked as he walked by.
He said the African-American community was looking at the issue ‘through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.’
But the President hasn’t often spoken on the subject of race in public – and only done so when it has been necessary.
During his radio interview yesterday, Mr Obama listed a variety of advances in racial equality, including equal rights before the law, an accessible judicial system, thousands of African-American elected officials, African-American chief executives as well as pointing out the doors that the civil rights movement opened for Latinos, women and gays.
‘I think he would say it was a glorious thing,’ he said.
But Obama noted that King’s speech was also about jobs and justice.
‘When it comes to the economy, when it comes to inequality, when it comes to wealth, when it comes to the challenges that inner cities experience, he would say that we have not made as much progress as the civil and social progress that we’ve made, and that it’s not enough just to have a black president, it’s not enough just to have a black syndicated radio show host,’ Obama said.
Last night, Michelle Obama saluted one of the march’s organizers Whitney Young at a screening for the documentary The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights.
She called Young, who served as executive director of the National Urban League during the 1960s, one of the ‘unsung heroes in our history whose impact we still feel today.’
She said: ‘For every Dr. King, there is a Whitney Young or a Roy Wilkins or a Dorothy Height, each of whom played a critical role in the struggle for change. And then there are the millions of Americans, regular folks out there, whose names will never show up in the history books.’