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At the Lincoln Memorial this week, the country’s first black president — a living symbol of the progress of the past 50 years — stood before tens of thousands of people to offer a reverent remembrance of the men and women who made his path, and the nation’s, possible.
“On a hot summer day, they assembled here, in our nation’s capital, under the shadow of the Great Emancipator, to offer testimony of injustice, to petition their government for redress, and to awaken America’s long-slumbering conscience,” President Obama said of the 1963 March on Washington.
“That steady flame of conscience and courage,” he continued, “would sustain them through the campaigns to come, through boycotts and voter registration drives and smaller marches, far from the spotlight, through the loss of four little girls in Birmingham, the carnage of Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the agony of Dallas, California, Memphis. Through setbacks and heartbreaks and gnawing doubt, that flame of justice flickered and never died.”
A history of hatred, discrimination, and struggle brought more than 200,000 Americans to the Washington Mall 50 years ago. The words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., on that day, his poetry of conviction animated by a refusal to accept discrimination, injustice, or violence, reflected universal values, a basic human longing for freedom and fair treatment among countrymen.
As the President noted, Mr. King’s effort and example inspired and propelled all Americans, not only African Americans, who were struggling for and cherishing equality, as well as those beyond America, from behind the Iron Curtain to apartheid South Africa. Mr. Obama asked his audience to keep that example of unity and cooperation in mind as the nation faces unmet challenges in a world that continues to change rapidly.
No oratory, though, could repay the debt all of us owe to people such as Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.), who sacrificed — sometimes with their lives — and suffered and persevered through the civil rights movement. To those who say that not much has changed since 50 years ago, Mr. Lewis offered this response:
“For someone to grow up the way I grew up, in the cotton fields of Alabama, to now be serving in the United States Congress, makes me want to tell them, come and walk in my shoes. Come walk in the shoes of those who were attacked by police dogs, fire hoses, and nightsticks; arrested, and taken to jail.”
Mr. Lewis argued that injustices persist in America, that more hard work must be done with care, cooperation, and wisdom. That’s surely true.
Yet “to dismiss the magnitude of this progress,” Mr. Obama said of what Mr. Lewis’s generation accomplished, “dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years. Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Martin Luther King, Jr.: They did not die in vain. Their victory was great.”
No complacency, but also no forgetting what has been achieved. That combination, from both Mr. Lewis and Mr. Obama, paid appropriate tribute to the importance of the day.