1:33 p.m. MLK's dream inspires a new march, and a president
Standing at ground zero on the civil rights movement's battlefield of justice, President Barack Obama challenged new generations Wednesday to seize the cause of racial equality and honor the "glorious patriots" who marched a half century ago to the very steps from which Rev. Martin Luther King spoke during the March on Washington.
In a moment rich with history and symbolism, tens of thousands of Americans of all backgrounds and colors thronged to the National Mall to join the nation's first black president and civil rights pioneers in marking the 50th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Obama urged each of them to become a modern-day marcher for economic justice and racial harmony.
"The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice but it doesn't bend on its own," Obama said, in an allusion to King's own message.
His speech was the culmination of daylong celebration of King's legacy that began with marchers walking the streets of Washington behind a replica of the transit bus that Rosa Parks once rode when she refused to give up her seat to a white man.
At precisely 3 p.m., members of the King family tolled a bell to echo King's call 50 years earlier to "let freedom ring." It was the same bell that once hung in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., before the church was bombed in 1963.
Georgia's John Lewis, a Freedom Rider-turned-congressman, recounted the civil rights struggles of his youth and exhorted American to "keep the faith and keep our eyes on the prize."
The throngs assembled in soggy weather at the Lincoln Memorial, where King, with soaring, rhythmic oratory and a steely countenance, had pleaded with Americans to come together to stomp out racism and create a land of opportunity for all.
White and black, they came this time to recall history — and live it.
"My parents did their fair share and I feel like we have to keep the fight alive," said Frantz Walker, a honey salesman from Baltimore who is black. "This is hands-on history."
Kevin Keefe, a Navy lawyer who is white, said he still tears up when he hears King's speech.
"What happened 50 years ago was huge," he said, adding that there's still progress to be made on economic inequality and other problems.
Two former presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, spoke of King's legacy — and of problems still to overcome.
"This march, and that speech, changed America," Clinton declared, remembering the impact on the world and himself as a young man. "They opened minds, they melted hearts and they moved millions — including a 17-year-old boy watching alone in his home in Arkansas."
Carter said King's efforts had helped not just black Americans, but "In truth, he helped to free all people."
Still, Carter listed a string of current events that he said would have spurred King to action in this day, including the proliferation of guns and stand-your-ground laws, a Supreme Court ruling striking down parts of the Voting Rights Act, and high rates of joblessness among blacks.
Oprah Winfrey, leading the celebrity contingent, recalled watching the march as a 9-year-old girl and wishing she could be there to see a young man who "was able to force an entire country to wake up, to look at itself and to eventually change."
"It's an opportunity today to recall where we once were in this nation," she said.
Obama used his address to pay tribute to the marchers of 1963 and that era — the maids, laborers, students and more who came from ordinary ranks to engage "on the battlefield of justice" — and he implored Americans not to dismiss what they accomplished.
"To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest — as some sometimes do — that little has changed, that dishonors the courage, the sacrifice, of those who paid the price to march in those years," Obama said.
"Their victory great. But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete."
Setting an energetic tone for the day, civil rights veteran Andrew Young, a former U.N. ambassador and congressman, sang an anthem of the civil rights movement and urged the crowd to join in as he belted out: "I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom." He ended his remarks by urging the crowd to "fight on."
Civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams, whose husband Medgar Evers was murdered in 1963, said that while the country "has certainly taken a turn backwards" on civil rights she was energized to move ahead and exhorted others to step forward as well.)
King's eldest son, Martin Luther King III, just 5 when his father spoke at the Mall, spoke of a dream "not yet realized" in full.
"We've got a lot of work to do but none of us should be any ways tired," he said. "Why? Because we've come much too far from where we started."
Organizers of the rally broadened the focus well beyond racial issues, bringing speakers forward to address the environment, gay rights, the challenges facing the disabled and more. The performers, too, were an eclectic crowd, ranging from Maori haka dancers to LeAnn Rimes singing "Amazing Grace."
Jamie Foxx tried to fire up a new generation of performers and ordinary "young folks" by drawing on the example of Harry Belafonte, who stood with King 50 years ago.
"It's time for us to stand up now and renew this dream," Foxx declared.
Forest Whitaker told the crowd it was their "moment to join those silent heroes of the past."
"You now have the responsibility to carry the torch."
NBA legend Bill Russell told the crowd he'd been at the 1963 march as an "interested bystander," and quipped with a smile, "It's nice to be anywhere 50 years later."
Turning serious, he added: "You only register progress by how far you have to go.... The fight has just begun and we can never accept the status quo until the word 'progress' is taken out of our vocabulary."
Slate gray skies gave way to sunshine briefly peeking from the clouds as the "Let Freedom Ring" commemoration unfolded. After that, a steady rain.
Among faces in the crowd: lawyer Ollie Cantos of Arlington, Va., there with his 14-year-old triplets Leo, Nick and Steven. All four are blind, and they moved through the crowd with their hands on each other's shoulders, in a makeshift train.
Cantos, who is Filipino, said he brought his sons to help teach them the continuing fight for civil rights.
"The disability rights movement that I'm a part of, that I dedicate my life to, is actually an extension of the original civil rights movement," said Cantos. "I wanted to do everything I can to school the boys in the ways of the civil rights movement and not just generally but how it effects them personally."
D.C. plumber Jerome Williams, whose family tree includes North Carolina sharecroppers, took the day off work to come with his wife and two kids. "It's a history lesson that they can take with them for the rest of their lives," he said.
It seemed to work. His son Jalen, marking his 17th birthday, said: "I'm learning the history and the stories from my dad. I do appreciate what I do have now."
Performers included Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey, their voices thinner now than when they performed at the original march as part of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. They sang "Blowin' in the Wind," as the parents of slain black teenager Trayvon Martin joined them on stage and sang along. The third member of the trio, Mary Travers, died in 2009.
Also joining the day's events were Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, daughter of Lyndon Johnson, the president who signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and Caroline Kennedy, daughter of John F. Kennedy.
Former President George W. Bush didn't attend, but said in a statement, said Obama's presidency is a story that reflects "the promise of America" and "will help us honor the man who inspired millions to redeem that promise." A spokesman said the former president declined to attend because he was recovering from a recent heart procedure.
1:19 p.m. Obama: King's dream partly met, still unfulfilled
President Barack Obama is claiming his place in Martin Luther King's 50-year-old dream, holding himself up as a symbol of the change King envisioned. But he also pointed to the nation's lingering economic disparities as evidence that King's hopes remain unfulfilled.
Obama spoke at Lincoln Memorial Wednesday on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. With Biblical references and the cadences of a preacher, Obama used the refrain, quote, "because they marched," as he recited the achievements of the civil rights movement.
Laws changed, legislatures changed and even the White House changed, Obama said. But he says income inequality, troubled inner cities and stagnant wages amid growing corporate profits show that challenges remain.
10:13 a.m.: March on Washington commemoration under way
Taking stock of progress both made and still to come, Americans of all backgrounds and colors massed on the National Mall on Wednesday to hear President Barack Obama and civil rights pioneers commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech on the same spot where he gave unforgettable voice to the struggle for racial equality 50 years earlier.
It was a moment rich with history and symbolism: the first black president poised to stand where King first sketched his dream.
Marchers opened the drizzly day by walking the streets of Washington behind a replica of the transit bus that Rosa Parks once rode when she refused to give up her seat to a white man. Midafternoon, the same bell was to ring that once hung in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., before the church was bombed in 1963.
Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were part of the lineup, too, with George W. Bush sending a statement of support. Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker and Jamie Foxx led the celebrity contingent.
Setting a festive tone for the day, civil rights veteran Andrew Young, a former U.N. ambassador and congressman, veteran, sang an anthem of the civil rights movement and urged the crowd to join in as he belted out: "I woke up this morning with my mind on freedom." He ended his remarks by urging the crowd to "fight on."
Robby Novak, the young comedian known as Kid President, followed him to the podium and exhorted the crowd to "keep dreaming, keep dreaming."
King's eldest son, Martin Luther King III, said blacks can rightfully celebrate his father's life and work, and the election of the first black president, but much more work remains. Even now, he said on NBC's "Today" show, drawing on his father's words, "many young people, it seems, are first judged by their color and then the content of their character."
Large crowds thronged to the Lincoln Memorial, where King, with soaring, rhythmic oratory and a steely countenance, pleaded with Americans to come together to stomp out racism and create a land of opportunity for all.
Slate gray skies and a light drizzle greeted the earliest arrivals for the daylong event.
The scheduled appearance later Wednesday of Obama was certain to embody the fulfilled dreams of hundreds of thousands who rallied there in 1963.
— Associated Press writers Nancy Benac, Suzanne Gamboa, Darlene Superville and Brett Zongker
7:08 a.m.: President Obama will stand in the symbolic shadows of Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln Wednesday, as he marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
Aides say Obama will use the opportunity to celebrate the progress that's been made, thanks to the civil rights movement. He'll also discuss the work that he says still has to be done to realize King's dream of racial justice in America.
That includes fighting to protect voting rights and building what the president calls "ladders of opportunity" for poor people of all races.
Obama doesn't often talk publicly about race. But it's clearly a subject he's thought and written a lot about. So when an African-American professor asked the president last week during a college visit in New York, where does he think the country is in terms of civil rights, Obama's answer was complicated.
"Obviously, we've made enormous strides," said Obama. "I'm a testament to it. You're a testament to it."
At the same time, Obama said, discrimination has not disappeared. And while it's nothing like it was 50 years ago, the legacy of Jim Crow has left lasting barriers to success.
"There are a lot of folks who are poor and whose families have become dysfunctional because of a long legacy of poverty, and live in neighborhoods that are run down and schools that are underfunded," he said.
After the Trayvon Martin verdict last month, Obama spoke in personal terms about the experience of being profiled as a black man in America. His remarks were praised in some quarters, but criticized in others.
"I don't think that the racial climate in this country is helped when the president wades in to what are always turbulent racial waters and stirs things up, which is what he did," says Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who was appointed by President George W. Bush.
Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher disagrees, saying resistance to frank talk about race is one reason the country hasn't made more progress.
"It's a conversation that makes a lot of white America uncomfortable and they would rather not have," says Belcher. "And understand, they have not had to have the conversation."
Obama has also not shied away from tough conversations about problems within the African-American community, where he says too many young men continue to make bad choices. He told graduates of Morehouse College in May there's no longer any room for excuses: "Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you've gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured. And they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too."
On Wednesday, Obama is likely to talk about civil rights in broader terms, encompassing not just blacks and whites but Latinos, women and gays, much as he did in his second inaugural, when he spoke in one breath of Selma, Stonewall, and Seneca Falls — the touchstone battlegrounds for all these civil rights movements.
Obama likes to quote King's comment that all of us are "tied in a single garment of destiny." But he's also warned in recent weeks that because of persistent economic anxiety, that unifying fabric is in danger of unraveling.
"Because times have been tough, because wages and incomes for everybody have not been going up, everybody is pretty anxious about what's happening in their lives and what might happen for their kids, and so they get worried that, well, if we're helping people in poverty, that must be hurting me somehow. It's taking something away from me."
Obama told that college professor in New York last week "it's in all of our interests" to lift up poor communities and help young people succeed — delivering on that promissory note that King talked about 50 years ago.
On Wednesday, the president is expected to leave his audience with the challenge of renewing that promise.
— Scott Horsley/NPR
Highlights from President Obama's remarks:
Watch the full event: