WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama stepped into the space Wednesday where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once stood, summoning his iconic dream of a colorblind society in a celebration of a half-century of progress and a call to arms for the next generation.
On a day of overcast skies and misty rain, tens of thousands of Americans — black, white and every shade in between — returned to the site of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to listen to the nation’s first black president pay tribute to the pioneers who paved the way for his own ascension to the heights of U.S. government.
“Because they kept marching, America changed,” the president said as King’s family watched. “Because they marched, a civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, a voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes.
“Because they marched,” he added, “city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually, the White House changed.”
The symbolic journey from King to Obama on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial animated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom more than any oratory. While Obama’s line about the White House changing was his only reference to his unique place in history, the power of his presence was lost on no one.
But it also underscored the challenge to a movement to reframe its mission for a new era. With an African-American in the Oval Office, it is harder to argue about political empowerment than it was in 1963, and much of the day’s message centered on tackling persistent economic disparity, as well as newer frontiers of civil rights like equality for gay men and lesbians.
Several of the speakers, including former President Jimmy Carter, tied the historic nature of the event to controversies of the moment, including the Trayvon Martin case, New York’s police frisking policy and the Supreme Court ruling this summer that overturned part of the Voting Rights Act.
“I think we know how Dr. King would have reacted,” Carter said.
Yet former President Bill Clinton said that, for all of the current challenges, Americans have never had more opportunity to shape the future if they can put aside their differences.
“It is time to stop complaining and put our shoulders against the stubborn gates holding the American people back,” he said.
The three presidents effectively reflected three eras in the civil rights movement: Carter, the white Southerner who appointed more blacks to high-ranking positions than did any of his predecessors; Clinton, who was so attuned to race issues that he was called the country’s first black president; and Obama, who really is the first and who represents the generation that came of age after the battles of the past.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who may seek to be the next president, did not attend, and aides declined to explain why. But on hand were Caroline Kennedy and Lynda Johnson Robb, daughters of the two presidents most associated with civil rights, as well as a phalanx of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Russell, Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker.
Some lions of the civil rights era were there, including Rep. John Lewis, former Ambassador Andrew Young and the Rev. Joseph Lowery — grayer, thicker, slower, but stirring emotions of their youth.
“We ain’t going back,” Lowery declared. “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.”
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Many members of King’s family participated as well, including his 85-year-old sister, Christine King Farris. The Rev. Bernice King, his daughter, noted that women were largely missing from the speakers list in 1963, but they were a significant presence 50 years later. She delivered a rousing call to “let freedom ring” before the ringing of a bell saved from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where a bombing by the Ku Klux Klan killed four girls just weeks after King’s speech.
Although Republican lawmakers were critical to the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, no prominent party leaders were onstage Wednesday. The two living former Republican presidents, George Bush and George W. Bush, both cited health in missing the occasion. The Republican National Committee held a luncheon honoring the march Monday, and party leaders issued statements, including the younger Bush and Mitt Romney.
“Dr. King was on this Earth just 39 years, but the ideals that guided his life of conscience and purpose are eternal,” Bush said. “Honoring him requires the commitment of every one of us.”
At age 52, Obama is too young to remember the march, and, raised in Hawaii as the son of a white mother and a father from Kenya, his own connection to the civil rights movement is more distant than, say, that of his wife, Michelle, whose parents grew up in segregated America. But he clearly felt the pressure to live up to the moment Wednesday, noting that “no one can match King’s brilliance.”
More sober than stirring until near the end, when he adopted more of a preacher’s cadence, Obama used his 29-minute address, nearly twice as long as King’s original, to argue for a renewed mission to ensure that opportunity is available not just for a few but for the many, for “the black custodian,” “the white steelworker” and “the immigrant dishwasher.”
“The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice,” the president said, adopting a line from King, “but it doesn’t bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency.”
He was to a large extent preaching to the choir. This was a crowd of supporters, many from the Washington area, and to them it was a day to reflect not only on King’s legacy but also on Obama’s. Those old enough to remember the march marveled at a black president’s standing where King had.
“If you say that’s not the fruition of the dream, I don’t know what is,” said Bill Carr, a licensed clinical social worker from Montclair, N.J., who is black.
Nearby stood Bill Tate, a retired engineer who is white and who wore a button from the original march, when he was a student at the University of Maryland.
“Who would have guessed 50 years ago that in less than 50 years we would re-elect — re-elect! — a black president?” he asked. “No one can deny that we’ve made some progress.”
Among the witnesses to that progress was Gil Lyons, who worked for the Postal Service at the time and was told that his pay would be docked if he attended the march. Now 82, he works as a Park Service interpreter, teaching visitors about national monuments, including the new King Memorial.
Lyons recalled being moved to tears by King’s address.
“I felt that something good was going to happen to America, and look at 1600,” he said, referring to the White House. “People said we would have a black president. I said to myself I probably would never see one. But what can I say? In my time, Obama came along.”
William Andrew Allison, 92, was also there that day, and he has kept a sign from the march in his closet ever since. Allison took it out of storage Wednesday and had it with him as he sat on a bench between the White House and the Mall.
“I thought I’d come back,” he said. “It had been 50 years.”
Still, some changes since then were more disconcerting. Snipers kept watch from the roof of the Lincoln Memorial, while the three presidents sat behind a clear bulletproof shield. Security barriers discouraged many from moving about freely, and risers for news media cameras blocked the view of the Lincoln Memorial.
If the 1963 march had an air of freedom and spontaneity, the event Wednesday felt at times choreographed and forced. When Young addressed the crowd, he did so in song, delivering a moving rendition of “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Freedom.” But when he implored the crowd to join in, the few who did could barely be heard.
“We’re not here to declare victory,” Young later told the crowd. “We’re here to simply say that the struggle continues.”