Fifty years after a 34-year-old reverend trumpeted a call for racial justice, President Barack Obama stood on the same steps and said inequalities continue to burden the nation’s minorities.
Tens of thousands stood in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial as Obama praised Martin Luther King, Jr. for ushering in the era of integration – with “a power and prophecy unmatched in our time” – that eventually shaped a nation that could elect a black president in 2008.
He lauded the 1960s civil rights leaders for their courage and commitment to nonviolence. And he urged the crowd – especially those who have been born in the 45 years since King’s death – to renew the movement in this era centering on economic injustices.
“As we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks could join the ranks of millionaires,” Obama said. “It was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life.”
Obama highlighted issues that still trouble minorities, like poverty and education, “from the corners of Anacostia to the hills of Appalachia,” linking them to a widening gap between economic classes. The speech, given blocks from GW’s campus in front of a crowd peppered with students, struck a careful balance of praising civil rights milestones while pressing for further progress.
“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,” said Obama, flanked by two former Democratic presidents and members of the King family. “But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete.”
Marchers headed into the rain as early as 9 a.m., and those without tickets to the event clustered around the Washington Monument. The crowd was not as vast as that of 1963, but the atmosphere was infused with a similar mix of personal emotion, frustration with the pace of progress, pride in what activists had previously accomplished, and optimism for future change.
Leann Rimes’ voice, singing “Amazing Grace,” floated over the crowd and mixed with cheers in the early afternoon. Images of King appeared every few steps on buttons and t-shirts. Signs read, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and “We March for Jobs and Freedom.”
The lineup of speakers included Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was the youngest to speak at the March on Washington in 1963, as well as former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and billionaire philanthropist Oprah Winfrey.
Before the speeches, hundreds walked through a soaked downtown to retrace the path of civil rights leaders in 1963, chanting for justice and singing “Let It Shine” as they donned rain ponchos and jackets.
Michelle Mitchell, a D.C. native, marched to honor the memory of her father, Maurice Clark, who risked losing his job in the federal government to participate in the 1963 march.
“People were scared. Both the marchers, black and white people, were scared for different reasons,” Mitchell remembers hearing from her father. “They had a lot to lose by just coming, even though they felt very strongly about what Dr. King said.”
Fifty years earlier on the Mall, Clark climbed a tree to see over the crowd of more than 250,000.
“When he was marching, I’m sure he was thinking about all the different struggles he was going through, trying to make a better life for all of us,” Mitchell said.
Cindy Jaffe, who worked on both of Obama’s presidential campaigns, traveled from Florida to hear the speeches. She remembers hearing King’s speech when she was a sophomore in high school in Cleveland.
“This was an opportunity for me to participate in something that really moved me at the time although I couldn’t go,” Jaffe said.
Avra Bossov, a GW junior, skipped class to hear Rabbi Israel Brezner, who spoke at the Religious Action Center about his relationship with King, a Baptist minister. The two clergymen discovered they shared the same problems with prejudice and discrimination.
“Dr. King is known not only for his words but also for his deeds. It’s not just the talk-the-talk but also the walk-the-walk,” Bossov said.
– Cydney Hargis contributed to this report
This post was updated Aug. 29, 2013 at 12:04 p.m. to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly spelled Rabbi Israel Dresner’s name. We regret this error.