President Barack Obama, speaking from the same Washington stage where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a defining speech steering a nation’s course toward civil rights, said that for all the transformation, work remains in countering growing U.S. economic disparities.
“To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency,” said Obama, appearing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where 50 years ago today King called on Americans to make good on the nation’s founding promise of equality for all.
Speaking shortly after bells rang across the U.S. in commemoration of the start of King’s 1963 address, Obama’s remarks served as the culmination of a week-long remembrance of a peaceful “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” and a speech that helped galvanize the civil rights movement of the 1960s and became as memorable as Abraham Lincoln’s own Gettysburg Address.
King, Obama said, did more than advance the cause of equal rights for black Americans -- he changed America.
“America changed for you and for me,” the president said today. “And the entire world drew strength from that example, whether it be young people who watched from the other side of an Iron Curtain and would eventually tear down that wall, or the young people inside South Africa would eventually end the scourge of apartheid.”
“‘What King was describing was the dream of every American,” Obama said, “the chance through honest toil to advance one’s station in life.”
Obama, 52, the nation’s first black president, has worked throughout his campaigns and government service to transcend issues of race. Yet this address centered on a problem still confronting a nation riven with economic disparities.
The message was echoed by several speakers -- politicians and performers alike -- throughout the day-long event, including former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, civil rights leaders including Joseph Lowery and Representative John Lewis of Georgia, and King’s sister and children.
“This march, and that speech, changed America,” Clinton, 67, said of King’s 1963 address today.
“They opened minds, they melted hearts and they moved millions including a 17-year-old boy watching alone in his home in Arkansas,” he said, in a reference to himself.
Obama’s remarks followed a ceremonial ringing in front of the Lincoln Memorial of the bell salvaged from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which was bombed on Sept. 15, 1963, less than three weeks after King’s speech. Four young girls were killed in the blast.
Today’s celebration arrived at a time when race has again risen in the national debate. The 2012 shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, and then the acquittal of his killer in July, stoked protests in the black community -- and prompted Obama to make a rare, and personal, public statement assessing the state of race relations.
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot,” the president said July 19, “I said this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
The anniversary of the 1963 march also comes two months after the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, struck down a key tenet of the Voting Rights Act, which drew pointed criticism from both the White House and Eric Holder, the country’s first black attorney general.
The Reverend Al Sharpton, speaking before Obama today, said that just as King had fought “Jim Crow” segregationist laws of the Old South, King’s children are fighting Jim Crow’s children -- namely a figurative “James B. Crow Jr.,” author of laws today that critics say restrict the voting rights of minorities.
“Just like our mothers and fathers beat Jim Crow,” Sharpton said, “we will beat James B. Crow Jr.”
While more than half of Americans say race relations in the nation are “generally good,” 40 percent of African-Americans still see “a lot of discrimination” against blacks, according to a CBS News poll released today.
Obama and his aides had worked to lower expectations for him in the days leading up to his speech, which had as its focus economic and social inequities that the administration has been addressing.
“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,” Obama said in his remarks.
Obama recounted the forces and experiences that brought people of all races to peacefully assemble on the National Mall 50 years ago, as well as the efforts that followed and led to U.S. passage of voting and civil rights laws and influenced communities around the world.
“America changed for you and for me and the entire world drew strength from that example,” Obama said.
Along with voting rights being secured, he said, educational opportunity was advanced, city halls were opened to all, “and yes, eventually the White House changed.”
For King and his fellow marchers, social injustice was inextricably intertwined with economic injustice.
“We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one,” King told the assembled crowd of more than 250,000 then.
Today, as the U.S. economy plods through recovery after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, economic disparity still is visible.
Unemployment among African-Americans stands at 12.6 percent, while the national unemployment rate is 7.4 percent. Since the June 2009 end of the recession, median income for black households has dropped 10.9 percent, compared with a 3.6 percent fall for white households, according to Sentier Research, an economic-consulting firm in Annapolis, Maryland.
“I think we all know how Dr. King would’ve reacted to unemployment for African-Americans being almost twice as high as it is for white people,” said Carter, 88, who was supported by King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, in his 1976 campaign for the presidency.
“Every hug from Coretta got me a million Yankee votes,” Carter said to laughs.
While the poverty rate for blacks has improved over the last five decades, it’s still greater than one in four -- and almost three times worse than the rate for whites.
Still, Obama said the gains made over that period -- and those who played the integral role in making them happen -- need to be recognized.
“To dismiss the magnitude of this process, 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,” Obama said.
Much of the week’s activities, including a series of speeches from black leaders on the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 24, focused on economic issues, including a push to increase the nation’s minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour.
“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 Jr.,” said Lewis, a Democrat who also spoke at the original March on Washington.
To contact the reporter on this story: Phil Mattingly in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at email@example.com