President Obama stepped on Wednesday into the space where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once stood and summoned his iconic dream of a colorblind society in a celebration of a half-century of progress and a call to arms for the next generation.
On a day of overcast skies and misty rain, tens of thousands of Americans — black, white and every shade in between — returned to the site of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to listen to the nation’s first black president reframe the mission for a new era.
“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,” Mr. Obama said as Dr. King’s relatives, compatriots and admirers watched. “But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete.
“The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice,” the president added, adopting a line from Dr. King, “but it doesn’t bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency.”
The symbolic journey from Dr. King to Mr. Obama on display on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial animated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom more than any particular oratory. In his own speech, Mr. Obama made only oblique reference to his unique place in history, when he said “and yes, eventually the White House changed,” but the power of his presence was lost on no one.
Mr. Obama hit on the theme that progress was made because of those who were there 50 years ago.
“And because they kept marching, America changed,” the president said. “Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes.”
More sober than stirring, Mr. Obama’s 28-minute address, nearly twice as long as Dr. King’s original, made the case that the fight for the new era was to ensure that opportunity is available not just for a few but for the many, for “the black custodian and the white steelworker” and “the immigrant dishwasher.”
“This remains our great unfinished business,” he said. “We shouldn’t fool ourselves. The task will not be easy.”
Mr. Obama, who was preceded by two former presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, took veiled shots at his political opponents, criticizing those who “practice the old politics of division” by claiming that the government is to blame for growing economic insecurity.
But he also said his side of the political spectrum should not use race as an excuse either. “If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that in the course of 50 years, there were times that some of us claiming to push for change lost our way,” he said. He added, “Racial politics could cut both ways.”
While Mr. Obama did not delve into policy battles in much detail, other speakers cited controversies of the moment, including the Trayvon Martin case, New York City’s police frisking policy and the Supreme Court ruling this summer overturning a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. “I think we know how Dr. King would have reacted,” Mr. Carter said.
Yet Mr. Clinton said that for all of the current challenges, Americans have never had more opportunity to shape the future if they can put aside their differences. “It is time to stop complaining and put our shoulders against the stubborn gates holding the American people back,” he said.
The three presidents effectively reflected three different eras in the civil rights movement: Mr. Carter, the white Southerner who appointed more African-Americans to high-ranking positions than any of his predecessors had; Mr. Clinton, who was so attuned to race issues that he was called the country’s first black president; and Mr. Obama, who really is and who represented the generation that came of age after the battles of the past.
The Rev. Bernice King, Dr. King’s daughter, who spoke after the former presidents, noted that there were no women on the program 50 years ago, but that a number of powerful women spoke on Wednesday afternoon. She delivered a stirring call to “let freedom ring” as the King family and Mr. and Mrs. Obama gathered around and rang a bell that had been saved from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where a bombing by the Ku Klux Klan killed four girls just weeks after Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Some of the lions of the era were there, including Representative John Lewis, Andrew Young and Joseph Lowery, grayer, thicker, slower, in some cases in a wheelchair, but stirring the emotions of their youth. “We ain’t going back,” Dr. Lowery declared. “We ain’t going back. We’ve come too far, marched too long, prayed too hard, wept too bitterly, bled too profusely and died too young to let anybody turn back the clock on our journey to justice.”
Also on hand were daughters of the two presidents most associated with civil rights, Caroline Kennedy and Lynda Johnson Robb, as well as a phalanx of entertainment and sports figures like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Russell, Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker.
Missing were prominent elected Republicans, although several issued statements commemorating the moment. The two living Republican presidents, George Bush and George W. Bush, both cited health difficulties in missing the occasion. But the younger Mr. Bush sent a message embracing the goals of equality.
“Dr. King was on this earth just 39 years, but the ideals that guided his life of conscience and purpose are eternal,” Mr. Bush said. “Honoring him requires the commitment of every one of us.”
Mitt Romney, the last Republican presidential nominee, taped a video adopting Dr. King’s language, saying, “I have a dream that what made America great will make our kids great — that superb schools, inspired churches, and parents that put their kids above everything else will lift our children and preserve the greatness of America.”
To many on hand, it was a day to reflect not only on Dr. King’s legacy but also on Mr. Obama’s. Those old enough to remember the march, or to have attended, marveled at the thought of a black president standing where Dr. King had.
“If you say that’s not the fruition of the dream, I don’t know what is,” said Bill Carr, a licensed clinical social worker from Montclair, N.J., who is black.
Nearby stood Bill Tate, a retired engineer who is white and who wore a button from the original march, when he was a student at the nearby University of Maryland. “Who would have guessed 50 years ago that in less than 50 years we would re-elect — re-elect! — a black president?” he asked. “No one can deny that we haven’t made some progress.”
Among the witnesses to that progress was Gil Lyons, an 82-year-old Park Service ranger and Korean War veteran who attended the 1963 march. Mr. Lyons, who worked for the Postal Service at the time and was told his pay would be docked if he attended the events, now works as a Park Service interpreter, teaching visitors about the national monuments, including the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
Mr. Lyons recalled being moved to tears by Dr. King’s address. “I felt that something good was going to happen to America, and look at 1600,” he said, referring to the White House. “People said we would have a black president. I said to myself I probably would never see one. But what can I say? In my time, Obama came along.”
William Andrew Allison, 92, was also there that day, and he had kept a sign from the march in his closet ever since: “We March for Effective Civil Rights Laws Now!” it said.
“When I came down for the march, they gave me the sign,” he said. Mr. Allison took the sign out of storage on Wednesday and put it next to himself as he sat on a bench between the White House and the Mall. “I thought I’d come back,” he said. “It had been 50 years.”
Still, the security barriers common in the years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, discouraged many from moving about freely, and risers for news media cameras blocked the view of the Lincoln Memorial, creating a sense of frustration. If the 1963 march had an air of freedom and spontaneity, Wednesday’s event felt at times choreographed and forced.
When Mr. Young, the retired civil rights worker, ambassador and Atlanta mayor, addressed the crowd, he did so in song, delivering a stirring rendition of “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Freedom.” But when he implored the crowd to join in, the few who did could barely be heard.
“We’re not here to declare victory,” Mr. Young later told the crowd. “We’re here to simply say that the struggle continues.”
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