Standing on the spot where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously urged Americans not to judge one another by the color of their skin, President Obama said Wednesday that Americans must use the example of the civil rights marchers of 50 years ago to press for his brand of economic justice for the middle class.
"We must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks could join the ranks of millionaires," Mr. Obama said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. "It was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of middle-class life."
Reciting many of the same themes from his re-election bid and his budget battles with congressional Republicans, the president said the nation's leaders must attack the problems of income inequality to live up to King's dream of social justice.
"The position of all working Americans, regardless of color, has eroded, making the dream Dr. King described even more elusive," Mr. Obama said. "Inequality has steadily risen over the decades."
As the nation's first black president, Mr. Obama capped a rainy day of rhetoric and music commemorating the 50th anniversary of King's legendary "I Have a Dream" speech and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
Americans are increasingly pessimistic that progress is being made toward King's goal of racial equality. A Pew Research Center poll this month found that only 26 percent of blacks believe conditions have improved for black Americans in the past five years. The same poll in 2009 said 39 percent of blacks felt conditions were improving.
Mr. Obama noted in his speech, "The gap in wealth between races has not lessened; it's grown." He later threw in the slogan of his 2008 campaign, saying, "We might not face the same dangers as 1963, but the fierce urgency of now remains."
The president's arrival was dramatic. He emerged from the interior shadows of the Lincoln Memorial, holding hands with first lady Michelle Obama and descending the marble steps, followed by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Republican former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush were invited but couldn't make it, resulting in an all-Democratic presidential cast at the podium.
Mr. Obama praised King's legacy and spoke even more passionately about the civil rights marchers of modest means who fought the struggle decades ago.
"Because they marched, eventually city councils changed ... and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed," Mr. Obama said to cheers. "America changed for you and for me, and the entire world drew strength from that example. That's the depth that I and millions of Americans owe those maids, those laborers, those porters, those secretaries — folks who could have run a company, maybe, if they had ever had a chance."
The president said the courage of those long-ago marchers is an example of how to achieve social goals today, as he gave a plug for his domestic agenda, including an increase of the minimum wage and his health care law.
"With that courage, we can stand together for good jobs and just wages," Mr. Obama said. "With that courage, we can stand together for the right to health care in the richest nation on earth for every person."
A series of speakers including Oprah Winfrey and Caroline Kennedy delivered a litany of liberal themes. Many invoked hot-button issues such as gun control, the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin and the Supreme Court's ruling on voting rights to call for a new era of civil rights activism.
Many of the invited speakers said civil rights in America are on the decline, and some invoked imagery of racial intimidation and the Jim Crow era as they issued calls for economic justice and equality.
The Rev. Al Sharpton said laws today are written differently than in the era of segregation, "but the results are the same."
"They come with laws that tell people to stand their ground, they come with laws that tell people to stop and frisk, but I come to tell you that just like our mothers and fathers beat Jim Crow, we will beat James Crow Jr., Esquire," Mr. Sharpton said.
Melanie Campbell, CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, said minorities have made progress over the past 50 years but added, "We have not arrived."
"Today, racism and inequality does not manifest itself in a white sheet, Jim Crow laws, poll taxes or barking dogs," she said. "But the dogs are still biting in other ways. Today, there are no white sheets. But there are judges in black robes in the U.S. Supreme Court who struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, opening the floodgates in many states to pass more voter ID laws to block people of color and young people from voting, with the goal of ensuring we never see another black man elected to the president, or woman, of the United States of America."
Mr. Carter, 88, decried the state of minority rights in the U.S. today.
"I think we all know how Dr. King would have reacted to the Supreme Court striking down a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act," he said. "I think we know how Dr. King would have reacted to America being awash in guns."
Mr. Clinton noted that King urged the crowd in 1963 "to reach across the racial divide."
"And then he dreamed, about an America where all citizens would sit together at the table of brotherhood," Mr. Clinton said. "This march, and that speech, changed America. They opened minds, they melted hearts, and they moved millions, including a 17-year-old boy watching alone at his home in Arkansas. What a debt we owe to those people who came here 50 years ago."
He also took a mild swipe at Mr. Obama and Congress when he said King would have wanted leaders today to "stop complaining about political gridlock" and put their shoulders to the job of compromise. "Cooperate and thrive, or fight with each other and fall behind," he said.
Mr. Clinton also said King would be horrified at the state of affairs in the U.S., especially regarding gun violence and voting rights.
"A great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon," he said.
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said advocates of civil rights are guilty of dozing in the struggle over the past 50 years.
"Somewhere along the way, white sheets were traded for button-down white shirts," Mr. Morial said. "Attack dogs and water hoses were traded for Tasers and widespread implementation of stop-and-frisk policies. Nooses were traded for handcuffs. It is time to wake up."
Few of the speakers at the podium mentioned Mr. Obama's victories in 2008 or 2012 as the nation's first black president. Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, Ohio Democrat and chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, did say there were only five black lawmakers in Congress in 1963, compared with 44 today.
The president chided critics who argued that the civil rights gains of the past 50 years were insignificant.
"To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed — that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years," Mr. Obama said. "But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete."
Ms. Winfrey appeared to inadvertently step into the controversy over a quote on the nearby King memorial when she said of the late civil rights leader, "He was, after all, a drum major for justice."
The memorial originally was inscribed with a quote from King that read: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." Critics said it was a paraphrase that made King sound egotistical, and the phrase was removed from the monument at great cost.
King said, "Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other things will not matter."
Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who spoke at the event in 1963, recalled the joyous optimism of that rally and the greatness of King.
"Not one incident of violence was reported that day," Mr. Lewis said. "The spirit of Dr. King's words captured the hearts of people, not just in America, but around the world. He changed us forever. Fifty years later, we can ride anywhere we want to ride, stay anywhere we want to stay."
But he said there are still "invisible signs" of racism.
King's sister, Christine King Farris, 85, said she was "awestruck" by her brother's speech in 1963.
"On that day, Martin achieved greatness," she said, urging the crowd to carry forward his work. "Yes, they can slay the dreamer, but no, they cannot destroy his immortal dream."
She, too, spoke of Trayvon Martin and voting rights as rallying points for civil rights advocates.
"We are not going to be defeated," she said.
Before Mr. Obama spoke, he and others near the podium watched as members of the King family rang the bell from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where four girls were killed in a bombing in September 1963.
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