Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, honored the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on Wednesday by calling for economic equality – a crucial step to long sought after racial equality – as he pushed to usher in a new era of civil rights in the United States.
Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial – the same spot where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. captivated a nation with his “I Have a Dream” speech – Obama said this sometimes forgotten theme of that historic day a half-century ago remains elusive.
“The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few,” Obama said. “It’s whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steel worker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran.”
A crowd of spectators, many wearing rain ponchos, packed the National Mall on a drizzly day to celebrate the day in 1963 when hundreds of thousands of Americans gathered in the nation’s capital to push for the freedoms that eventually would be enshrined into laws that banned discrimination against minorities based on race, ethnicity and religion. They held a smattering of homemade signs. “I was there,” read one sign. “Let freedom ring,” read another.
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Obama was joined on the memorial’s steps by first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and former Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, who made brief remarks. The two living Republican former presidents didn’t attend, the ailing George H.W. Bush and son George W. Bush, who is still recovering from a heart procedure earlier this month.
“This march and that speech changed America,” Clinton said. “They opened minds, melted hearts and they moved millions.”
The “Let Freedom Ring” ceremony capped a week of prayer services and training sessions, roundtables and seminars designed to commemorate the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. There was even a march Wednesday morning, led by a replica of the bus Rosa Parks rode when she refused to give up her seat to a white man in 1955. Celebrities, including talk show host Oprah Winfrey, actor Jamie Foxx and singer LeAnn Rimes, made appearances.
Ellie Moyer, 75, a retiree from New York City who was in town Wednesday, recalled that people threw rocks at the bus that transported her and others to and from Washington when she came to original March on Washington.
“It was truly horrible. There was so much prejudice in every way, shape or form,” she said. “I’m glad that to a certain degree we are past that type of outward prejudice, but there is still an undercurrent in this country. . . . We’ve come a long way, but (it’s) not enough.”
Wednesday’s mood was joyful but subdued, with present-day realities seeping into the festivities. Vendors hawked T-shirts honoring Trayvon Martin, the black teenager shot to death in Florida last year by a neighborhood watch coordinator. Code Pink, a peace organization, protested a potential U.S. military strike in war-torn Syria with a 20-foot-long banner demanding “U.S. Stay Out of Syria.”
Obama – who represents the fulfilled dreams of some of the same people who fought for equality half a century ago – spoke just after 3 p.m. when a bell from the Birmingham, Ala., church that was bombed in 1963 rang to mark King’s historic speech.
“The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own,” Obama said. “To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency.”
Obama has been reluctant to speak about the complicated issue of race despite his own unique place in history. His reticence has drawn criticism from African-Americans who say he should contribute to the dialogue. But in his second term, Obama has been more vocal on issues of economic inequality, voting rights and criminal justice.
“The president has the most difficult task in this nation today because of who he is, and of course we are not going to deny it. We are going to be honest, because he is African-American,” said CeCe Cole, 52, the editor of a New York magazine.
Obama, who keeps a bust of King and a framed program from the march in the Oval Office, has said the civil rights leader served as a role model. On Wednesday, he praised King and “those ordinary people whose names never appeared in the history books” who marched for change.
“Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed, and, yes, eventually, the White House changed,” he said.
Obama called for Americans to unite and push for equality for everyone – women and men, gay and straight, black and white, immigrants and native born – when it comes to classrooms, ballot boxes and prisons. And, of course, when it comes to the paycheck.
He said technology and global competition has decreased jobs for the middle class and lowered their wages. Black unemployment has remained almost twice as high as white unemployment.
“We must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks could join the ranks of millionaires,” he said. “It was whether this country would admit all people who are willing to work hard regardless of race into the ranks of a middle-class life.”
Kris Piggee, 42, who works in insurance in Oklahoma, said Obama’s remarks were poignant and inspiring. But, she said, he doesn’t want to hear people talk about how far the nation still has to go.
“He doesn’t want to hear that we have a lot further to go than we’ve come, but I think its true,” she said. “And it’s not anything against the sacrifices that were made . . . but it proves that it’s a much larger issue than a lot of people realize. It’s not insurmountable, but it’s not easily removed.”
Maria Recio and Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.