WASHINGTON – A half-century to the day that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his clarion call for justice from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, tens of thousands reconvened near that spot Wednesday to hear from one of his symbolic heirs, amid hope and frustration about the current state of race relations in America.
President Barack Obama, accompanied by the first lady and two former Democratic presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, walked down the stone steps past a cast iron bell from a Birmingham, Ala., church where a bombing killed four black girls in September 1963.
Taking the lectern, the nation’s first black president paid homage to King’s legacy, saying that “because they kept marching, America changed.” But Obama warned that the struggle for equality is not yet complete, adding that “the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.”
“To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency,” Obama said. He cited as setbacks the Supreme Court’s decision in June to strike key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the high rates of blacks in prison.
At a time of slow economic recovery, Obama emphasized that while his own presence in the White House symbolized how far the nation has moved on racial tolerance, such victories threatened to obscure the other major goal of the 1963 rally: economic justice.
Seeking, perhaps, to help revive his flagging domestic policy agenda ahead of a September budget fight, the president said the country faced a critical choice, as it did in 1963, between stalemate and progress.
“We can continue down our current path in which the gears of this great democracy grind to a halt and our children accept a life of lower expectations,” Obama said, “where politics is a zero-sum game, where a few do very well while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking economic pie. That’s one path.”
Or, he continued, “we can have the courage to change. The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history, that we are masters of our fate. But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together. We’ll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago.”
At 3 p.m., the time King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” address five decades ago, descendents of King rang the bell, and church bells across the nation chimed three times. A gospel singer began to sing, as Obama, forgoing an umbrella despite a persistent drizzle, prepared to make his address in the shadow of his famous forebear. Before Obama’s appearance, the panoply of speakers traced how much progress the U.S. has made over five decades.
“This moment in history is a long time coming, but the change has come,” said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the last living speaker from the 1963 rally.
But, as other speakers did, Lewis, who marched along with King and other civil rights leaders, warned that the progress should not be mistaken for full equality at a time when blacks face higher unemployment rates.
“We’ve 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 Jr.,” Lewis said.