50 years after the most iconic civil rights speech in history, President Barack Obama championed himself as evidence of the progress that has been made on racial equality.
But in a speech delivered today at the “Let Freedom Ring” ceremony — which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the “March on Washington” and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech — Obama also took keen note of how much progress the nation still has to make.
“The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it does not bend on its own,” Obama said in a speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
Obama opened the speech by remembering the historical implications of the marches, using the refrain “…because they marched,” while reciting the accomplishments of King and the broader civil rights movement.
“Because they marched, America became more free and more fair,” Obama said. “Because they kept marching, America changed.” And, yes, he said — eventually, the White House changed, too.
But later in his speech, he mentioned the less-remembered part of King’s “March on Washington” — that marchers came not only seeking justice, but also jobs. Those “who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract ideal. They were seeking jobs as well as justice,” he said.
“The gap in wealth between races has not lessened, it’s grown,” Obama said.
And at his speech’s end, he urged people to “keep marching.” Here was the end of his speech:
We might not face the same dangers of 1963, but the fierce urgency of now remains. We may never duplicate the swelling crowds and dazzling procession of that day so long ago.
No one can match King’s brilliance, but the same flame that lit the heart of all who are willing to take a first step for justice, I know that flame remains.
That tireless teacher who gets to class early and stays late and dips into her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that every child is her charge, she’s marching.
That successful businessman who doesn’t have to but pays his workers a fair wage and offers a shot to a man, maybe an ex-con, who’s down on his luck, he’s marching.
The mother who pours her love into her daughter so she grows up with the confidence to walk through the same doors as anybody’s son, she’s marching.
The father who realises the most important job he’ll ever have is raising his boy right, even if he didn’t have a father, especially if he didn’t have a father at home, he’s marching.
The battle scarred veterans who devote themselves not only to helping their fellow warriors stand again and walk again and run again but to keep serving their country when they come home, they are marching.
Everyone who realises what those glorious patriots knew on that day, that change does not come from Washington but to Washington. The change has always been built on our willingness. We, the people, to take on the mantle of citizenship, you are marching.
That’s the lesson of our past. That’s the promise of tomorrow. That in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.
Obama joined a list of speakers at the “Let Freedom Ring” event that included former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, as well as Rep. John Lewis, the only living speaker from the 1963 event at the 50th anniversary.
Obama’s speech as the first African-American president also came five years to the day after he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.
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