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.