WASHINGTON — President Obama, speaking from the hallowed place where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech 50 years ago, called on the nation Wednesday to build upon the accomplishments of racial justice and complete the journey to economic equality.
In some ways, the moment marked a dream fulfilled, with the nation’s first black president embodying how far the country has come. As Obama paused and looked at the masses from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he sought to link the history that he celebrated to the hope that he promised in his presidential campaigns.
“Because they kept marching, America changed,” Obama said of those who fought for civil rights along with King. “Because they marched, the city councils changed, and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed. And yes, eventually the White House changed.”
But as Obama and a parade of speakers before him made clear, King’s dream remains a work in progress, with voting rights issues again at the forefront and with black Americans facing the same kind of high unemployment rate and other problems that helped spark the march a half a century ago.
Former president Bill Clinton, who spoke before Obama, urged the crowd to fight the gridlock in Washington with actions rather than rhetoric.
“Martin Luther King did not live and die to hear his heirs whine about political gridlock,” Clinton said. “It is time to stop complaining and put our shoulders against the stubborn gates holding the American people back.”
Clinton and Obama were joined by former president Jimmy Carter and a number of other prominent Democrats. No Republicans delivered remarks, which was variously attributed to GOP members’ declining invitations or not receiving them. Some Republicans did speak at other events associated with the anniversary.
On a cloudy, drizzly day, hawkers set up on street corners, selling T-shirts and handbags with Obama and King on them, with text that read: “I have a dream. That dream has come true.” Streams of people — young and old, black and white — headed to the Mall. Some who were there 50 years ago brought the same signs they had then. The crowd appeared to be number in the tens of thousands.
“Today we are freer but less equal,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said in an interview.
Jackson said Obama is the crown jewel of the political aspects of King’s dream, but he also called upon the president to do more to help black Americans.
“He’s good and will only get better,” Jackson said. “But we need a response to our pain from him. [There are] 2.5 million Americans in prison, half of them African-Americans. Respond to that. These urban ghettos, foreclosed homes, closed schools, closed libraries, closed medical units — we need a response.”
Obama stressed in his speech that much progress has been made, saying that to believe otherwise would tarnish the memory of King and other civil rights workers.
“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,” he said.
But while some of the political and legal goals of the civil rights movement may have been realized, Obama said, the goal of economic equality remained elusive.
“In some ways, though, the securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination — the very significance of these victories may have obscured a second goal of the March,” Obama said. “For the men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract ideal. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice, not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal? The gap in wealth between races hasn’t lessened, it’s grown.”
A Pew Research Poll released last week found that only 26 percent of African Americans think the situation for blacks is better now than it was five years ago. That is down from 39 percent in 2009, when Obama first took office.
The survey, called “King’s Dream Remains an Elusive Goal,” also found that while gaps between whites and blacks have narrowed on measures such as high school completion and life expectancy, on other key indicators they have widened.
Black men were six times as likely as white men in 2010 to be incarcerated, an increase from 1960, when black men were five times as likely as whites to be in jail.
Consistently since the 1950s, the unemployment rate has been about double for blacks than it has been for whites.
“As much success President Obama has had as president, the fact remains he is still only one person,” said A.J. Franklin, a Boston College professor who was at the King speech in Washington 50 years ago. “We’re talking about the black community that still has an enormous number of barriers to overcome. The dream is partially fulfilled.”
Obama’s experience was a different one, in many ways, from those of many African-Americans. He was a 7-year-old in Indonesia when King was shot in Memphis in 1968. His mother, a white woman from Kansas, would bring home books on the civil rights movement and recordings of King’s speeches.
“If I told her about the goose-stepping demonstrations my Indonesian Boy Scout troop performed in front of the president, she might mention a different kind of march, a march of children no older than me, a march for freedom,” he wrote in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father.”
But he also noticed that there was nobody who looked like him in the Sears Christmas catalogue. As president, he has spoken about being followed in a department store, or hearing people lock car doors as he walks past,experiences he says he shares with most black men.
As a politician, he has delicately approached the issue of race. During his 2008 presidential campaign, he devoted a speech to the topic after coming under criticism for the harsh rhetoric of his pastor Jeremiah Wright, who made several racially charged statements from his pulpit. Upon being elected as the nation’s first African-American president, he played down the significance as he sought to appeal to all Americans.
Still, he put a framed program of the March on Washington and a bust of King in the Oval Office. And at times he tried to educate white Americans on what black Americans were feeling, as he did in the aftermath of the ruling that acquitted George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. He could have been Martin, Obama said, recounting ways in which he had been racially profiled.
The event on Wednesday followed a similar one on Saturday, where civil rights leaders held a separate march. But the one on Wednesday was more star-studded. Oprah Winfrey came and spoke. Caroline Kennedy — the only surviving child of John F. Kennedy, who was president during the march 50 years ago — made an appearance.
Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary were there to sing “Blowin’ in the Wind," as they had 50 years ago.
Marking the moment King delivered his speech, bells began ringing at 3 p.m. — from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where King family members rang a bell, from Birmingham, and from the Old South Meeting House in Boston, where Governor Deval Patrick pulled the rope.
Many on the Mall had come far to participate in this marking of history.
“This is my mecca, in my lifetime,” said Steven Harrison, 53, who traveled from his home in Pensacola, Fla.
Edith Hill Cannon, 73, a retired elementary school teacher who grew up in Mississippi, remembered that her parents paid a poll tax to vote. She received secondhand books from white students at her school in Greenville, Miss., and watched a cross being burned on campus at Tougaloo College.
“But I’ve also had a chance to see us gain a great deal,” she said.
She is planning to have her children and grandchildren to her house this weekend for brunch, to tell them what she has seen and to talk about the civil rights movement.
“Martin Luther King is dancing wherever he is,” she said. “He’s dancing. I’m dancing.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.