Standing on the same steps of the Lincoln Memorial where
Martin Luther King enthralled a vast crowd exactly 50 years before, President
Barack Obama hailed gains among blacks that "would have been unimaginable" in
1963, but he warned that full economic equality for all Americans "remains our
great unfinished business."
Joined by former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, members of King's family, TV entertainer Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities, the president told the thousands gathered yesterday at the Reflecting Pool on the nation's Mall that the 1963 march "teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history, that we are masters of our fate."
To loud applause, Obama said that to "dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed -- that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years." As examples of those who sacrificed, he cited the assassinations of King in 1968 and Medgar Evers in 1963, and the murder of three voting-rights workers in Mississippi in 1964.
But Obama said "we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete."
Instead, turning toward economic freedom, the president said "the securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination -- the very significance of these victories may have obscured a second goal of the march, for the men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract ideal."
"They were there seeking jobs as well as justice -- not just the absence of oppression, but the presence of economic opportunity," Obama said. "For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can't afford the meal?"
Obama was referring to the fact that while America has changed enough to elect more than 10,000 African-American public officials -- including a president -- a vast gap still exists between the wealth accumulated by whites and blacks, and "black unemployment has remained almost twice as high as white."
Not only did Obama have to compete with King's "I Have a Dream" address half-a-century ago, but the president also shared the stage with Clinton, one of the most-powerful speakers in the Democratic Party.
Yet the presence of the nation's first African-American president was a powerful symbol of how America has changed from those days in 1963 when blacks attended segregated schools, were forced to sit at the rear of buses in the South and lived in fear of violence from the Ku Klux Klan.
As if to emphasize that point, Obama stood next to a large bell that hung in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where just a couple of weeks after King's speech, four black girls were killed by a bomb planted by the Klan.
Displaying an emotion he often seems determined to conceal, Obama said: "We'll suffer the occasional setback. But we will win these fights. This country has changed too much. People of good will, regardless of party, are too plentiful for those with ill will to change history's currents."A t 3 p.m. -- when both King's and Obama's speeches began -- bells rang out across the country, including in Downtown Columbus.
The afternoon in Washington had a decidedly Democratic Party appearance, although organizers tried to include Republicans. In addition to Obama, Carter and Clinton, notable speakers included Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, and Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Cleveland.
Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, both Republicans, declined invitations, citing health concerns. The younger Bush had surgery this month for an arterial blockage.
A spokeswoman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester, said he was "invited but had to decline due to him having been scheduled to be out of town before the invitation was received." She said Boehner held a reception last month in the House honoring the march.
Under a drizzling sky, thousands began filing into the area near the Reflecting Pool hours before Obama's speech. They included Rosemary Minders of Cincinnati, who said she was "so proud to be an American, and I just wanted to be here today. I was too young 50 years ago, but I wanted to be here and join in the celebration.
"We in Ohio are facing challenges with our Republican-controlled legislature and our governor," she said. "We experienced them in the last presidential election, of cutting back on voter times, early voting, voter-registration issues. I guess if they can't win your hearts and minds, they'll try to stop you from voting."
M. Morton Hall, a New York man who attended the 1963 march, said he "came today for many ... who are deceased" who made what he called the "stroll for their freedom."
He acknowledged that gains have been made for African-Americans, but he said: "You have another insidious racism. Something you can't put your finger on it. But it's there. You go for an interview for a job. It goes into a garbage can."
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