When President Obama addresses the throngs expected to gather Wednesday for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, don't expect an exact echo of the themes or the oratory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s electrifying "I Have a Dream" speech.
King and the 1963 marchers confronted the evils of outright segregation and the denial of basic political and economic rights to an entire class of people. Mr. Obama — joined by predecessors Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — will be challenged to translate the ideals of the first march to address the problems of 2013, to look at the past but not dwell on it, to appeal to Americans of all races to embrace the progress made but move forward in a decisive manner.
Opinions on the fruits of King's legacy are disparate, and some say Mr. Obama should use his address on the Mall to identify themes for a new age that were not featured on that hot day in August 1963, including education and the need for personal responsibility.
King challenged white America to live up to the ideals of equality and liberty in the nation's founding documents, but former Republican congressman and military veteran Allen West said this year's march should focus on raising the bar of self-discipline and help tamp down Americans' penchant for looking to the federal government for answers.
"If you set the bar low, you jump low," he said.
The Rev. C.T. Vivian, a King lieutenant who risked his life as a Freedom Rider and will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Mr. Obama, said it's important to do more than merely reflect or recite King's words. He said it's time to re-energize King's ideals and moral authority to fashion a focused strategy for the future.
"The important thing you have to realize about Martin, it wasn't just Martin, it was the strategy he brought, what propelled all of us, this entire nation, into the 21st century," said Mr. Vivian, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "I like the idea of 50 years. It gives the nation a chance to review the progress or lack of it, in that 50-year period. It also says something to us about meeting every half-century to examine where we are, where we've been and what we project in the future."
One of the "norms" that must be addressed, some say, is out-of-wedlock births in the black community.
Anita MonCrief, a former activist for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, calls herself an ex-liberal and former Obama supporter. She warned that black Americans should be wary of the message of the president and other Democratic leaders if they see government intervention as the primary tool to attack modern social ills.
"Family values are the missing link," she said. "Liberals took the male out of our family equation. Mothers became the sole breadwinners, so [they were] not there to raise her kids. Today they don't respect themselves and they don't respect life itself."
According to the liberal Brookings Institution, rates of out-of-wedlock births have soared since 1970, a social and cultural upheaval that began well after two landmark legislative results of the 1963 march — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — were signed into law.
"In 1965, 24 percent of black infants and 3.1 percent of white infants were born to single mothers," a Brookings report said. "By 1990 the rates had risen to 64 percent for black infants, 18 percent for whites."
Today, 73 percent of black babies are born to unmarried girls and women, and "that means absent fathers. And the studies show that lack of a male role model is an express train right to prison, and the cycle continues," CNN anchor Don Lemon said during a recent discussion on race relations.
To black leaders such as Robert J. Brown, who was an aide to President Nixon, even the cultural norm of boys and men, whether black or white, wearing sagging pants should be deemed unacceptable.
"You couldn't pay a kid to have his pants hanging down generations ago," said Mr. Brown, chairman and CEO of the High Point, N.C.-based B&C Associates Inc. "Somebody would be tearing up their behind. Civil rights activists wore suits and everyone was well-dressed."
The message is subtly but unmistakably different from the one King and his counterparts delivered a half-century ago. King's "I Have a Dream" speech was a clear call to white America to live up to the ideals they were supposed to cherish, to make good on a promise too long denied to black Americans.
In a less-remembered metaphor from that speech, King argued that the nonviolent marchers had taken their crusade to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in order to "cash a check."
"When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
In some ways, the focus on jobs and economic opportunity that was the back half of the March on Washington may be more relevant to the crowds that gather this week. One of the thorniest and problematic issues for the black community — jobs — remains today.
"In 1954, the earliest year for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics has consistent unemployment data by race, the white rate averaged 5 percent and the black rate averaged 9.9 percent," according to an Aug. 21 paper by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. "Last month, the jobless rate among whites was 6.6 percent; among blacks, 12.6 percent. Over that time, the unemployment rate for blacks has averaged about 2.2 times that for whites."
However, there have been some deliverables of the "promissory note," according a U.S. Census Bureau report, including:
• Declining poverty gaps: In 1966, the national poverty rate stood at 14.7 percent, while the black rate was 41.8 percent. In 2011, the national rate was 15 percent, compared with 27.6 percent for blacks.
• Voting. In 1964, 58.5 percent of voting-age blacks cast ballots in the presidential election, compared with 62 percent in 2012. (Overall, the national participation rate was only 56.5 percent.) One new theme of this year's march has been the future of the Voting Rights Act, after the Supreme Court decision this year that curbed the federal government's ability to target certain states over election practices.
• The number of blacks who attended college — the very young people who represented a key cog in the civil rights movement wheel — and at least have a bachelor's degree also rose after the march.
The census report says there were 10 times as many black undergraduates in 2011 (2.6 million) compared with 1964 (234,000). In 1964, 365,000 blacks had a bachelor's degree, a number that rose drastically to 5.1 million in 2012.
Not everyone agrees that the progress of the past half-century means this week's marchers can turn to new themes and challenges. Many say the original civil rights struggle should be expanded to other groups that they see as marginalized or whose hard-won rights are under assault.
The Rev. Al Sharpton said in his blog on Huffington Post that "as the country continues to diversify, many would like to bring us back to an era when women did not have the right to choose, and the LGBT community had to live in the shadows."
But in the wake of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, gays, women, immigrants, anti-gun and antiwar activists and others have used similar strategies to urge presidents and congresses to exercise federal powers for their causes.
The president, Ms. MonCrief also said, should urge us toward healing.
"The continuation of MLK's dream is that we need to move toward forgiveness and healing," she said. "We keep opening old wounds when blood was shed on both sides. It's important that we go back to being accountable to ourselves, our families and our community."
• Meredith Somers contributed to this report.
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