WASHINGTON — America is struggling to fully realize the vision that civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. described in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech 50 years ago, as the goal of economic security for all remains elusive, President Barack Obama said Wednesday.
Obama, the first black U.S. president, spoke to thousands of marchers on Washington’s National Mall to commemorate King’s landmark address, which came to symbolize the struggle for equality among blacks and whites in America.
Obama said King’s speech inspired millions of Americans to fight for a more just society and rights that people now take for granted.
“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.
“But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete,” he said, calling economic justice the “unfinished business” of the civil rights battle.
Maine Sen. Angus King attended the event as he did King’s speech 50 years ago. King was a 19-year-old student at Dartmouth College in 1963.
“Fifty years ago today this place was a battlefield. No shots were fired, no cannons roared, but a battlefield nonetheless — a battlefield of ideas, the ideas that define us as a nation,” Sen. King said in a statement. “As it was once said of Churchill, Martin Luther King on that day mobilized the English language and marched it into war, and in the process caught the conscience of a nation. And here today on these steps, 50 years on, indeed something abides, and the power of the vision has surely passed into our souls.”
Marchers, many wearing T-shirts with Martin Luther King Jr.’s face on them, began their walk near the U.S. Capitol.
They were led by a line of military veterans and people who had been at the 1963 march, their arms linked. People sang “We Shall Overcome” and other civil rights anthems.
Fighting restrictive voting rights laws that Democrats say hurt minorities, combating joblessness and reducing gun violence among African-Americans are among the issues that civil rights leaders put at the forefront of their efforts in 2013.
“This march was supposed to be about jobs, but it’s about a lot more,” said marcher Ash Mobley, 27, of Washington, who said she was there to represent her grandmother, who had been at the 1963 event.
The marchers heard speeches from former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and members of King’s family on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the site of King’s address on August 28, 1963.
A bell rang at 3 p.m., 50 years to the minute after King ended his clarion call of the civil rights movement with the words “Let freedom ring.”
Bernice King, his youngest child, urged the crowd to stay true to the ideals enunciated by her father.
“If freedom is going to ring in Libya, in Syria, in Egypt, in Florida, then we must reach across the table, feed each other and let freedom ring,” she said.
Obama’s address commemorating King, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and advocate of nonviolence, comes as the White House edges closer to launching military strikes in Syria in response to what U.S. officials say they believe was a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government on civilians.
Obama has said the country’s history of racial discrimination had contributed to a persistent economic gap between blacks and whites in the decades since King’s speech.
Obama, whose mother was white and whose father was black, has sometimes seemed reluctant to weigh in on persistent racial divides in the United States, but he spoke forcefully about the issue last month after the man who killed black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was acquitted.
The “Let Freedom Ring and Call to Action” ceremony comes as almost half of Americans say much more needs to be done before the color-blind society King envisioned is realized.
Wednesday’s event caps a weeklong celebration of King’s historic call for racial and economic justice. They included a march Saturday that drew thousands of people urging action on jobs, voting rights and gun violence.
King’s speech is credited with helping spur passage of sweeping civil rights laws. James Earl Ray, a white prison escapee, assassinated him outside a Memphis motel in April 1968.