WASHINGTON — A half-century to the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his clarion call for justice from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, tens of thousands reconvened near that spot Wednesday to hear from one of his symbolic heirs, amid hope and frustration about the current state of race relations in America.
President Obama, accompanied by the first lady and two former Democratic presidents, walked down the stone steps past a cast-iron bell from a Birmingham, Ala., church where a bombing killed four black girls in September 1963.
Taking the lectern, the nation’s first African-American president paid homage to King’s legacy, saying that “because they kept marching, America changed.” But Obama warned that the struggle for equality is not yet complete, saying “the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.”
“To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency,” Obama said. He cited as setbacks the Supreme Court’s decision in June to strike key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the high rates of African-American incarceration.
At a time of slow economic recovery, Obama emphasized that while his own presence in the White House symbolized how far the nation has moved on racial tolerance, such victories threatened to obscure the other major goal of the 1963 rally: economic justice.
The nation’s unemployment rate for African-Americans remains far higher than for other racial groups, and Obama, concerned by a growing income gap, has pressed Congress to invest in infrastructure, education and research at a time when Republicans are championing deep budget cuts to rein in the deficit.
Seeking, perhaps, to help revive his flagging domestic policy agenda ahead of a September budget fight, the president said the country faced a critical choice, as it did in 1963, between stalemate and progress.
“We can continue down our current path in which the gears of this great democracy grind to a halt and our children accept a life of lower expectations,” Obama said, “where politics is a zero-sum game, where a few do very well while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking economic pie. That’s one path.”
Or, he continued, “we can have the courage to change. The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history, that we are masters of our fate. But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together. We’ll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago.”
It was a day of remembrance and unity, but the absence of any Republican speakers among the dozens of politicians and activists who addressed the crowd was notable at a time of deep partisan divide in Washington.
Several GOP officials, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said they had been invited but had declined after participating in a congressional ceremony marking the anniversary leading up to the march.
At 3 p.m., the time King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” address five decades ago, descendents of King rang the bell, and church bells across the nation chimed three times. A gospel singer began to sing, as Obama, forgoing an umbrella despite a persistent drizzle, prepared to make his address in the shadow of his famous forebear.
Before Obama’s appearance, the panoply of speakers traced how much progress the United States has made over five decades.
“This moment in history is a long time coming, but the change has come,” said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the last living speaker from the 1963 rally.
But as other speakers did, Lewis, who marched along with King and other civil rights leaders, warned that the progress should not be mistaken for full equality at a time when African-Americans face higher unemployment rates.
“We’ve 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.,” Lewis said.
Former President Jimmy Carter, after praising the legacy of King, whom he called perhaps the nation’s most important leader, recited a list of ongoing challenges: the Supreme Court’s ruling in June that struck down key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, high unemployment in the black community, lenient gun-control laws and a lack of voting rights in the District of Columbia.
“I think we know how Dr. King would have decried” those problems, Carter said.
Former President Bill Clinton was even more forceful about what he views as the misplaced priorities of the country.
“A great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon,” Clinton said. But he said the public should not complain about the political gridlock in Washington.
“We don’t face beatings and lynchings and shootings because of our political beliefs anymore,” he said. “Martin Luther King Jr. did not live and die to hear people complain about political gridlock. It’s time to stop complaining and start putting our shoulders together against the stubborn gates holding America back.”
Some celebrants set off on the actual path of the 250,000 who marched on Aug. 28, 1963, retracing the footfalls that helped begin a cultural earthquake and eventually shook apart the bulwarks of legal discrimination against African-Americans. There were long lines at the security checkpoints, and some people were treated for heated-related conditions by medical personnel.
Umbrellas and ponchos took the place of mid-century fedoras and skinny ties. But some still talked of recapturing the mood of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an event that has been described as a day of euphoria amid the chaos and clashes of the 1960s. And they spoke of reclaiming the unfinished business of the movement at a time when African-Americans still lag far behind whites on economic and educational attainment.
“Fifty years ago we had to convince the president to let us come. Today, the president is coming to us,” exulted Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s non-voting member of Congress, as the crowd grew around her. Back in 1963, she was one of the young staffers organizing the march.
Others on the Mall came to note their own history — in some cases, the personal outrages that brought them to Washington 50 years ago.
Nannie Blakeney remembers when her grandmother was a housekeeper for a white family. Blakeney would play with the family’s children, but wasn’t permitted to sit down with them for lunch.
“I wanted to eat with the little girl, and they said I had to eat in the kitchen,” she said. “I kept asking my grandmother, ‘Why? Why?’ She said because if you don’t they’ll beat you.”
Blakeney was 13 when she made the trip from Virginia to the March on Washington in 1963. She heard King talk about his dream and “thought it might come true,” she said. “We’ve come a long way. I have mixed-race grandchildren now.”