As President Obama recalled how Martin Luther King Jr. gave “mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions,” they nodded slowly, in quiet affirmation. When he paid homage to those who marched on Washington 50 years ago, saying they made America “more free and more fair,” a few clasped their hands together, as if a victory had been won.
And when the nation’s first black president spoke of how people who love their country can change it, the small group of co-workers who listened intently to Obama’s speech smiled softly.
Angie Camacho, 38, who works at Action for Boston Community Development, an anti-poverty group, said she appreciated how Obama linked the civil rights movement to the broader fight for economic justice.
“That’s exactly what Dr. King did,” she said. “And we’re still fighting the same fight.”
As the nation commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, people in and around Boston paused to remember the great civil rights leader and reflect upon his legacy. In public observances and in small gatherings, they took stock of how far the nation has come and how far it still needs to go.
At 3 p.m., the hour King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963, bells rang forth across the country to mark the occasion. At the Old South Meeting House in Boston, Governor Deval Patrick did the honors, pulling the rope with both hands.
“That’s a beautiful sound,” he said.
The state’s first African-American governor said the nation has made enormous strides in issues involving race but much work remains.
“I think the struggle we have in this country is striking the balance between acknowledging the extraordinary progress we have made and acknowledging how much progress we have yet to make,” Patrick told reporters at the Meeting House.
The United States “crossed a huge divide” in electing Obama, Patrick said. His own election in 2006 also demonstrated how times had changed.
“We have made extraordinary progress in the 50 years since that speech,” he said, calling the gains a “thing to behold.”
But steep challenges remain and demand vigilance, Patrick said.
“At the time of the March on Washington, it was in the immediate wake of poll taxes and Emmett Till,” Patrick said, referring to the African-
American boy brutally murdered for interacting with a white woman. “And 50 years later, the commemoration is in the immediate wake of voter-suppression laws in North Carolina and Texas and Trayvon Martin.”
King’s speech “pricks our conscience today, just as it did 50 years ago, to look forward and think about what we must do to commit to those ideals that make this country so extraordinary,” he said.
Patrick, who was 7 years old in 1963, recalled his grandparents warming up their “big old black-and-white TV” before watching the speech.
Patrick remembered attending a King speech in Chicago around that time. He did not recall just what King said that day but remembered well the feeling of connection with the rest of the crowd. “People like me, of limited means but limitless hope,” he said.
Joan Whitaker, health services director at ABCD, recalled that same feeling at the March on Washington, which she attended as a 20-year-old college student in Boston. On the spur of the moment, she and a group of other students, black and white, decided they had to be there.
“It was momentous,” she said. “It felt like the start of something incredible. You felt something in the air, history in the making.”
Whitaker said the nation has “come a long ways” but said many miles “remain on the journey.” In health, education, and opportunities, massive disparities between the races remain, she said.
“In many ways, the gaps have widened,” she said.
In a hushed conference room at ABCD’s offices, near the Common, Sharon Scott-Chandler, said that while King’s civil rights achievements are rightly lauded, his work to extend economic opportunity to all races is sometimes overlooked, even though the issues remain just as pressing today.
“We see exactly what he’s talking about,” said Scott-
Chandler, 46. “There are so many people who work very hard but can’t get ahead.”
For Rick Ellis, 61, the speech made him think of his mother, who turned 90 in June. She was never all that political, he said. Until Obama came along.
“I had never heard her so excited,” she said. “She said, ‘I never thought I’d live to see this.’ ”