WASHINGTON—Speaking to a cheering crowd at the Lincoln Memorial on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, President Barack Obama warned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream” remains unrealized as long as millions of workers are unemployed and poverty is growing.
Obama praised the progress in realizing King’s dream. “To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed, that dishonors the courage and sacrifice,” he told the crowd at the “Let Freedom Ring” celebration. Recalling the martyrdom of Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Dr. King himself, and many others, Obama said, “They did not die in vain. Their victory was great.”
But it also dishonors them to suggest that the work is complete, he said. The “arc of the moral universe” may bend towards justice, Obama continued, “but it doesn’t bend on its own.”
In some ways, Obama added, winning civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination, “obscured” the second goal of the 1963 march, jobs. He quoted King’s challenge, “For what would it profit a man…to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he couldn’t afford the meal?”
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, he said, “requires the dignity of work, the skills to find work, decent pay….”
That half of King’s dream remains unmet and getting more distant, Obama said. Black unemployment is almost twice as high as whites and Latinos are close behind. The gap in wealth between the races has not lessened; it has grown. The economic position of all Americans, regardless of race, has eroded “making the dream Dr. King described even more elusive.”
“For over a decade, working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate,” Obama said. “Even as corporate profits soar, even as the pay of the fortunate few explodes, inequality has steadily risen over the decades. Upward mobility has become harder. In too many communities….the shadow of poverty casts a pall.”
Obama called on the crowd to renew the fight, to win jobs and higher pay not just for a handful but for many millions unable to land a good job.
Rep. John Lewis, one of the speakers at the 1963 march and rally, said some complain “nothing has changed” since 1963. “Come walk in my shoes,” Lewis cried, recalling the fire hoses used against Black youth in Birmingham, the billy clubs and tear gas used against him and other peaceful marchers in Selma Ala. Despite the police terrorism, the movement won passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and countless other civil rights laws. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Lewis said, was a “spark of the divine.”
Former President Clinton recalled the climate of racist violence including the murder of four little African American girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church Sept. 15, 1963. Yet the people are “still marching for jobs and freedom,” he said. He urged the crowd to “stop complaining” about the gridlock in Washington D.C. “and put our shoulders against the stubborn gates” to reverse the right-wing obstructionists. “We must push open these stubborn gates. A great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon.”
At 3 p.m., moments before Obama spoke, the crowd fell silent as a bell, sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, was rung by a young Black girl. The bell was brought from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a symbol of the sacrifice made by the children and youth of that city in the freedom struggle. After he spoke, Obama walked over and knelt down and spoke with the child.
The rally came at the conclusion of a march, led by veterans of the 1963 march, down Pennsylvania Ave, along Constitution Avenue to the Lincoln Memorial where King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech 50 years ago. This was the second huge demonstration in five days commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a testament to how deeply the civil rights revolution has changed the nation. Both drew 150,000 or more people, a majority African American but also many thousands of all races and nationalities. The labor movement brought many hundreds of buses to both events with thousands of autoworkers, transit workers, teachers, and public employees.
Photo: The president and First Lady Michelle Obama with former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton on the video screen and reflected in the water at the Lincoln Memorial “Let Freedom Ring” rally on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washingto, Aug. 28. (Victoria Pickering/CC)