Obama challenges new generation to honor the message King delivered 50 years ago
WASHINGTON — Standing on hallowed ground of the civil rights movement, President 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 the 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 message.
His speech was the culmination of a 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., where four black girls were killed when a bomb planted by a white supremacist exploded in 1963.
Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a former freedom rider and the sole survivor of the main organizers of the 1963 march, 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.”
In Western Pennsylvania, students and professors at Allegheny College celebrated their area's connection to the speech, which mentions “the mighty Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.”
Some at the school in Meadville, about 90 miles north of Pittsburgh, have wondered whether the line in the speech was a way of acknowledging the college, since several Allegheny students were also active in King's civil rights movement in the early 1960s.
Charles B. Ketcham, 87, a former professor of religion at Allegheny who corresponded with King in the early 1960s, said that might be a stretch.
“It was probably a beautiful way to get some alliteration. He was wonderful at that,” Ketcham said of King.
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.”