WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. President Barack Obama, speaking from the same Washington stage where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a defining speech of the civil rights movement, said Wednesday that even as the nation has been transformed, work remains in countering growing economic disparities.
“To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency,” said Obama, appearing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where 50 years ago King called on U.S. citizens to make good on the country’s founding promise of equality for all.
Speaking shortly after bells rang across the U.S. in commemoration of the start of King’s 1963 speech, Obama’s remarks served as the culmination of a week-long remembrance of a peaceful “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” that helped galvanize the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
King, Obama said, had done more than advance the cause of civil rights for black Americans — he changed the United States.
“Because they kept marching, America changed,” Obama said of those who marched on Washington 50 years ago. “‘What King was describing was the dream of every American,” he said, ”the chance through honest toil to advance one’s station in life.”
Obama, 52, the nation’s first black president, has worked throughout his campaigns and government service to transcend issues of race. Yet this address centered on a problem still confronting a nation riven with economic disparities.
The message was echoed by several speakers — politicians and performers alike — throughout the day-long event, including former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, civil rights leaders including Joseph Lowery and Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and King’s sister and children.
”This march, and that speech, changed America,” Clinton, 67, said of King’s 1963 address. “They opened minds, they melted hearts and they moved millions including a 17-year old boy watching alone in his home in Arkansas.”
Obama’s remarks came after the ceremonial ringing of the bell salvaged from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which was bombed in 1963. Four young girls were killed in the blast.
This celebration arrived at a time when race has once again risen in the national debate. The 2012 shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, and then the acquittal of his killer in July, stoked protests in the black community — and prompted Obama to make a rare, and personal, public statement assessing the state of race relations.
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot,” the president said July 19, “I said this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
The anniversary of the march also comes three months after the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, struck down a key tenet of the Voting Rights Act, which drew pointed criticism from both the White House and Eric Holder, the country’s first black attorney general.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, speaking before Obama, said that just as King had fought “Jim Crow” segregationist laws of the Old South, King’s children are fighting Jim Crow’s children — namely a figurative “James B. Crow Jr.,” author of laws today restricting the voting rights of minorities.
“Just like our mothers and fathers beat Jim Crow,” Sharpton said, “we will beat James B. Crow Jr.”
While more than half of U.S. citizens say race relations in the nation are “generally good,” 40 percent of African-Americans still see “a lot of discrimination” against blacks, according to a CBS News poll released Wednesday.
Obama and his aides worked to lower expectations for the speech in days leading up to his presentation — with smaller themes and a focus on economic and social inequities that the administration has been addressing as its focus.
“Let me just say for the record right now, it won’t be as good as the speech 50 years ago,” Obama said in a radio interview about the speech with the “Tom Joyner Morning Show” that aired Tuesday. “Because when you’re talking about Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington, you’re talking about one of the maybe five greatest speeches in American history.”
Instead, Obama recounted the forces and experiences that brought people of all races to peacefully assemble on the National Mall, as well as the efforts that followed and led to the voting and civil rights laws in the years ahead and influenced communities around the world.
“America changed for you and for me and the entire world drew strength from that example,” Obama said. Not only were voting rights secured, he said — educational opportunity was advanced, city halls were opened to all, “and yes, eventually the White House changed.”
For King and fellow marchers five decades ago, social injustice was inextricably intertwined with economic injustice.
“We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one,” King told the assembled crowd of more than 250,000 then.
Today, as the U.S. economy plods through recovery after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, economic disparity still is visible.
Unemployment among African-Americans stands at 12.6 percent, while the national unemployment rate is 7.4 percent. Since the June 2009 end of the recession, median income for black households has dropped 10.9 percent, compared with a 3.6 percent fall for white households, according to Sentier Research, an economic-consulting firm in Annapolis, Maryland.
“I think we all know how Dr. King would’ve reacted to unemployment for African-Americans being almost twice as high as it is for white people,” said Carter, 88, who was supported by King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, in his 1976 campaign for the presidency. “Every hug from Coretta got me a million Yankee votes,” Carter said to laughs.
While the poverty rate for blacks has improved over the last five decades, it’s still greater than one in four — and almost three times worse than the rate for whites.
Much of the week’s activities, including a series of speeches from black leaders on the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 24, focused on economic imperatives, including a push to increase the nation’s minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour.
“We have come a great distance in this country in the 50 years, but we still have a great distance to go beore we fulfill the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and civil rights leader who spoke at the original March on Washington.
With assistance from Roger Runningen, Joi Preciphs and Margaret Talev in Washington, D.C.
© 2013, Bloomberg News