Standing on the same steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King enthralled a vast crowd exactly 50 years ago, President Barack Obama hailed gains among blacks that “would have been unimaginable’’ in 1963, but warned that full economic equality for all Americans “remains our great unfinished business.’’
Joined by former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, TV entertainer Oprah Winfrey and members of King’s family, the president told the thousands gathered Wednesday at the Reflecting Pool on the nation’s Mall that the march from 1963 “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 he cited the assassinations of King in 1968 and Medgar Evers in 1963, and the murder of three civil 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 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, adding that “black unemployment has remained almost twice as high as white (unemployment).’’
Analysts had believed that Obama had a huge obstacle to overcome. Not only did he have to compete with King’s “I have a dream’’ address half-a-century ago, but he shared the stage with Clinton.
Yet just the very 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 by 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 young black girls were killed by a bomb planted by the Klan.
Displaying an emotion he often conceals, 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.’’
The afternoon had a decidedly Democratic Party appearance, although organizers had attempted to include Republicans. In addition to Obama, Carter, and Clinton, other notable speakers included Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, and Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Cleveland.
Fudge said during her speech, “Now it is up to us to make sure that no child goes hungry to school or to bed. It is our time to make Dr. King’s dream our reality.’’
Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush both declined invitations, citing health. The younger Bush this month had surgery for an arterial blockage.
A spokeswoman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., 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 noted that Boehner last month hosted a reception in the U.S. 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 told Cox Broadcasting that 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.’’
Martha Hudson, a retired school teacher from Lansing, Mich., said she was just 11 when King spoke. “I remember, but I didn’t understand fully the impact,” she said. “Now it’s a mark of history to be part of this.’’