President Barack Obama told thousands who gathered on the National Mall on Wednesday that while fallen racial barriers represent great strides toward the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 50-year-old dream, economic inequality remains the nation’s “great unfinished business.”
Presenting a striking tableau, the nation’s first black president spoke from the Abraham Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech a half-century earlier. He was joined by a pair of former presidents — Georgia’s Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — as well as a raft of civil rights pioneers who hailed from Atlanta, as King did.
Obama praised the movement leaders, recounted their progress in the face of violence and hatred, and told how far the nation has come on civil rights. But he emphasized the huge gaps that persist in black and white unemployment and wealth.
“The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few,” Obama said. “It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many.”
He only mentioned in passing his administration’s newly vigorous enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, after the Supreme Court stripped away some of the federal oversight of state election law. Obama also did not echo other speakers in bringing up the summer’s most thorny civil rights issues, such as the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin or New York City’s challenged “Stop and Frisk” policy.
Atlanta’s Rev. Joseph Lowery, who helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King, was among those who singled out voting laws that many advocates say unfairly target minorities.
“There are men and forces who still seek to restrict our vote and deny our full participation,” Lowery said. “Well, we come here to Washington to say: We ain’t going back. We ain’t going back. We’ve come too far, marched too long, prayed too hard, wept too bitterly, bled too profusely and died too young to let anybody turn back the clock on our journey to justice.”
The day dripped with history, as those who marched in 1963 spoke about the experience. Former NAACP chairman Julian Bond reached back another 100 years, telling the tale of his grandfather, the child of a slaveowner and his slave mistress.
“My grandfather and his mother were property, like a horse or a chair,” Bond said.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat, is the only living speaker from the 1963 march, when he worked with Bond as the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In his usual thundering tones, Lewis recalled the indignities blacks faced in those days and his own numerous encounters with police dogs and jails in the South.
Lewis connected those civil rights struggles with issues he advocates from his perch in Congress: immigration reform, gay rights, the disproportionate incarceration of blacks.
“Too many of us still believe our differences define us, instead of the divine spark that runs through all of human creation,” Lewis said.
The multi-hued crowd who lined the reflecting pool and braved intermittent rain waved signs and wore clothing for all manner of left-leaning causes. Street vendors hawked Obama- and King-themed artwork and paraphernalia.
On the lawn by the Washington monument, as throngs waited to enter the rally through metal detectors, advocates of immigration reform chanted: “What do we want? Citizenship! When do we want it? Now!”
Others wanted to halt violence in Eritrea. A few demanded justice in the mysterious death of Kendrick Johnson, a Valdosta teen. A couple urged attendees to eat vegan.
On the stage, the lengthy roster of speakers and performers over five hours included civil rights veterans, modern-day politicians, labor union leaders and even some high-wattage celebrities — Jamie Foxx, Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker.
The action built to a crescendo when the three living Democratic presidents and first lady Michelle Obama entered before Lewis’ speech. Organizers had invited a handful of Republicans, but Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, former Gov. Jeb Bush, House Speaker John Boehner and U.S. Sen. John McCain declined to attend.
Clinton referenced the much-maligned stalemates in Congress, and added: “Read a little history. It’s nothing new.”
“I would respectfully suggest that 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.”
Carter called King perhaps the greatest leader in American history, including the Founding Fathers. His family also became a political asset.
“I was really grateful when the King family adopted me as their presidential candidate in 1976,” Carter said. “Every handshake from Daddy King, every hug from Coretta got me a million Yankee votes.”
Coinciding with ceremonies around the country, Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and head of the King Center in Atlanta, rang the bell from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., which was bombed by Ku Klux Klan members in 1963, killing four girls.
Then came Obama, whose speech focused on the economic forces that have widened inequality in America and the political forces that have not fixed it.
Obama blamed those who see taxes, regulation and labor unions as violating economic principles, and politicians who stoke the notion “that distant bureaucrats were taking (voters’) hard-earned dollars to benefit the welfare cheat or the illegal immigrant.”
But there were plenty of blameworthy folks on the left, too.
“What had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead, was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself,” Obama said. “All of that history is how progress stalled. That’s how hope was diverted. It’s how our country remained divided.”
He spoke directly to the experiences of black Americans, as he has done more frequently in his second term, including during a commencement address at Morehouse College in May and after the July acquittal of George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin’s killing.
But Obama also gave a more broad class-based argument, one he said fits right in with the goals of 50 years ago.
“Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day, that change does not come from Washington but to Washington, that change has always been built on our willingness, we, the people, to take on the mantle of citizenship — you are marching.”