MLK's dream inspires a new march, and a president

Associated Press

President Barack Obama talks with Yolanda Renee King, 5, granddaughter of Martin Luther King Jr., her mother Arndrea Waters, and Martin Luther King III, right, after speaking at a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Wednesday.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Standing on hallowed ground of the civil rights movement, President Barack 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 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 own message.

His speech was the culmination of 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."

Kevin Keefe, a Navy lawyer who is white, said he still tears up when he hears King's speech.

"What happened 50 years ago was huge," he said, adding that there's still progress to be made on economic inequality and other problems.

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."

Still, Carter listed a string of current events that he said would have spurred King to action in this day, including the proliferation of guns and stand-your-ground laws, a Supreme Court ruling striking down parts of the Voting Rights Act, and high rates of joblessness among blacks.

Oprah Winfrey, leading the celebrity contingent, recalled watching the march as a 9-year-old girl and wishing she could be there to see a young man who "was able to force an entire country to wake up, to look at itself and to eventually change."

"It's an opportunity today to recall where we once were in this nation," she said.

Obama used his address to pay tribute to the marchers of 1963 and that era — the maids, laborers, students and more who came from ordinary ranks to engage "on the battlefield of justice" — and he implored Americans not to dismiss what they accomplished.

"To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest — as some sometimes do — that little has changed, that dishonors the courage, the sacrifice, of those who paid the price to march in those years," Obama said.

"Their victory great. But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete."

Civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams, whose husband Medgar Evers was murdered in 1963, said that while the country "has certainly taken a turn backwards" on civil rights she was energized to move ahead and exhorted others to step forward as well.

King's eldest son, Martin Luther King III, just 5 when his father spoke at the Mall, spoke of a dream "not yet realized" in full.

"We've got a lot of work to do but none of us should be any ways tired," he said. "Why? Because we've come much too far from where we started."

Organizers of the rally broadened the focus well beyond racial issues, bringing speakers forward to address the environment, gay rights, the challenges facing the disabled and more. The performers, too, were an eclectic crowd, ranging from Maori haka dancers to LeAnn Rimes singing "Amazing Grace."

Jamie Foxx tried to fire up a new generation of performers and ordinary "young folks" by drawing on the example of Harry Belafonte, who stood with King 50 years ago.

"It's time for us to stand up now and renew this dream," Foxx declared.

Forest Whitaker told the crowd it was their "moment to join those silent heroes of the past."

"You now have the responsibility to carry the torch."

Slate gray skies gave way to sunshine briefly peeking from the clouds as the "Let Freedom Ring" commemoration unfolded. After that, an intermittent rain.

Obama spoke with a bit of a finger-wag at times, saying that "if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way." He spoke of "self-defeating riots," recriminations, times when "the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself."

But the president said that though progress stalled at times, "the good news is, just as was true in 1963, we now have a choice."

"We can continue down our current path, in which the gears of this great democracy grind to a halt and our children accept a life of lower expectations; where politics is a zero-sum game where a few do very well while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking economic pie — that's one path. Or we can have the courage to change."

Among faces in the crowd: lawyer Ollie Cantos of Arlington, Va., there with his 14-year-old triplets Leo, Nick and Steven. All four are blind, and they moved through the crowd with their hands on each other's shoulders, in a makeshift train.

Cantos, who is Filipino, said he brought his sons to help teach them the continuing fight for civil rights.

"The disability rights movement that I'm a part of, that I dedicate my life to, is actually an extension of the original civil rights movement," said Cantos. "I wanted to do everything I can to school the boys in the ways of the civil rights movement and not just generally but how it affects them personally."

D.C. plumber Jerome Williams, whose family tree includes North Carolina sharecroppers, took the day off work to come with his wife and two kids. "It's a history lesson that they can take with them for the rest of their lives," he said.

It seemed to work. His son Jalen, marking his 17th birthday, said: "I'm learning the history and the stories from my dad. I do appreciate what I do have now."

Performers included Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey, their voices thinner now than when they performed at the original march as part of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. They sang "Blowin' in the Wind," as the parents of slain black teenager Trayvon Martin joined them on stage and sang along. The third member of the trio, Mary Travers, died in 2009.

Also joining the day's events were Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, daughter of Lyndon Johnson, the president who signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and Caroline Kennedy, daughter of John F. Kennedy.

High profile Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., had been invited to speak at Wednesday's ceremony but declined, according to aides.

Boehner had participated along with other congressional leaders at a July 31 event marking the anniversary of the march while lawmakers were still in Washington. Congress currently is on a five-week recess and lawmakers aren't scheduled to return until Sept. 9. Cantor joined Rep. John Lewis earlier this year in Selma, Ala., to honor King's legacy.

Former President George W. Bush didn't attend, but said in a statement, Obama's presidency is a story that reflects "the promise of America" and "will help us honor the man who inspired millions to redeem that promise." A spokesman said the former president declined to attend because he was recovering from a recent heart procedure.

What do you think of this story?

Login to post comments

In order to make comments, you must create a subscription.

In order to comment on SunJournal.com, you must hold a valid subscription allowing access to this website. You must use your real name and include the town in which you live in your SunJournal.com profile. To subscribe or link your existing subscription click here.

Login or create an account here.

Our policy prohibits comments that are:

  • Defamatory, abusive, obscene, racist, or otherwise hateful
  • Excessively foul and/or vulgar
  • Inappropriately sexual
  • Baseless personal attacks or otherwise threatening
  • Contain illegal material, or material that infringes on the rights of others
  • Commercial postings attempting to sell a product/item
If you violate this policy, your comment will be removed and your account may be banned from posting comments.

Advertisement

Comments

Eric  LeBlanc's picture

MLK JR was a womanizer

He was unfaithful to his wife and family. It's time to see this bum for who he really was and stop celebrating his legacy.

 's picture

In the interest of diversity ...

... I'm glad they invited a few Republicans. It's disappointing that they did not invite any black Republicans, especially Tim Scott [R] So. Carolina, the country's only black Senator.

With such discrimination it's highly unlikely they would have invited MLK himself, were he alive, since he too was a black Republican.

KRIS KUCERA's picture

MLK, Jr. was NOT a Republican. Do you just make "facts" up?

What utter nonsense. There is no evidence he ever voted Republican -- he cheered Johnson's victory in '64 -- and he was not in any political party.

"I don’t think the Republican party is a party full of the almighty God nor is the Democratic party. They both have weaknesses … And I’m not inextricably bound to either party.” -MLK Jr. in a 1958 interview

His thoughts on Republicans? They say plenty, and ring true today:

Regarding the 1964 Republican Convention:
"The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism. All people of goodwill viewed with alarm and concern the frenzied wedding at the Cow Palace of the KKK with the radical right. The “best man” at this ceremony was a senator whose voting record, philosophy, and program were anathema to all the hard-won achievements of the past decade.
"Senator Goldwater had neither the concern nor the comprehension necessary to grapple with this problem of poverty in the fashion that the historical moment dictated. On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represented a philosophy that was morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulated a philosophy which gave aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I had no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy." -MLK Jr. in his autobiography

On Reagan:
"When a Hollywood performer, lacking distinction even as an actor can become a leading war hawk candidate for the Presidency, only the irrationalities induced by a war psychosis can explain such a melancholy turn of events." --MLK Jr. in his autobiography

Now let me guess, Reagan's CIA didn't help Saddam with satellite info when Saddam gassed the Iranians in '88? Do as America says, not as it does, right? (And yet Reagan sold the Iranians weapons in '85 & '86 to pay for the Contras in Nicaragua? Come again? . . .)

You're funny

Actually, the real question is why there are so few Black Republicans to invite. Only 5% of Black Americans identify as Republicans, and 89% of Republicans are non-Hispanic Whites (Source: http://www.gallup.com/poll/160373/democrats-racially-diverse-republicans...). So if you want to ask about invitations that matter, you ought to be asking why the GOP is so uninviting to Blacks. It's probably because we Black Americans recall that in the second half of the 20th century, the GOP made the strategic decision to adopt a so-called "Southern strategy," banking on the support of White southerners who opposed the civil rights acts enacted to protect the rights of Blacks. Led by the likes of Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond, Republicans appealed to the prejudice and racial resentment that prevailed among many White southerners, and still does to this day. Rather than repudiate it, Republicans cast their lot with it. As the late Lee Atwater (former GOP strategist, and the brains behind the infamous Willie Horton ad) said, "You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."" This was the strategy the GOP adopted and now they have an overwhelmingly White party as a result. Perhaps if they'd taken a different road--and perhaps if their party leadership weren't also overwhelmingly White and male--the organizers of yesterday's march might have had more leading party officials of color from which to choose. Or is your point that the GOP should content itself with having one or two token Black officials (but not in leadership positions) that they can trot out on special occasions?

Yes, as you would hasten to add, Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. But any efforts of his to free the slaves are a far cry from the strategies adopted by the contemporary GOP (see my last paragraph) and the policies endorsed by the GOP (such as policies that would adversely impact Black voters' access to the voting booth).

Finally, if you are implying that Martin Luther King would affiliate himself with either the Republican party of the 1960s or the Republican party of today, you are a madman.

Bob White's picture

Wow someone is holding a grudge

We have a black President so don't say any cuts to save money or anything like that is to keep the black person down. There are lots of successful black people in this world. I had a hard time following your comment but seeing how you went back into history all the way back to Lincoln you will never think things are getting better. People like yourself will only hurt your cause.

Advertisement

Stay informed — Get the news delivered for free in your inbox.

I'm interested in ...