Washington, Aug 29 — Thousands of Americans converged on the national mall to hear America’s first black president as they sought to recapture the magic of Martin Luther King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech fifty summers ago.
Standing on the same steps of the Lincoln Memorial from where the civil rights leader spoke in the afternoon of Aug 28, 1963, President Barack Obama Wednesday recalled how King “gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions” as a multitude of black, white and people of other varied shades listened.
But more than his words, the very act of an African-American president marking King’s Mahatma Gandhi inspired “March on Washington” that he called “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation”, was steeped in symbolism.
“His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time,” said Obama, dressed in a black suit and a blue tie, at the end of a day-long ceremony attended among others by two former presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
Hailing leaders who braved intimidation and violence in their fight for equal rights, Obama cast his own election to the Oval Office as a consequence of persistence and courage from leaders such as King.
“Because they kept marching, America changed,” Obama said amid a light drizzle.
“Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually, the White House changed.”
While other, negative changes have forestalled the push toward racial harmony, Obama said the work of civil rights leaders had permanently changed the discourse between races in America.
“To dismiss the magnitude of this process, to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed, that dishonours the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years,” Obama said.
Adopting words from another of King’s speeches, Obama declared that “the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own”.
However, “to secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency”, he said.
“We will suffer the occasional setback, but we will win these fights. This country has changed too much.”
Before he spoke, Obama, his wife Michelle in a black dress with red flowers, and the King family gathered around and rang a cast iron bell to mark the moment King ended his speech with a call to “let freedom ring”.
The bell had been saved from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where a bombing by the Ku Klux Klan killed four black girls in September 1963.
Earlier, speaking from those very steps of the Lincoln Memorial, 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 in his home in Arkansas.”
Clinton also took to task people who dwell gridlock in Washington, instead of focusing on a way forward, like King did.
Carter, a Georgian like King, said: “We all know how Dr. King would have reacted” to voter ID requirements and stand-your-ground laws, among other policies.
“Well, there’s a tremendous agenda ahead of us, and I’m thankful to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his dream is still alive,” Carter said.
The Rev. Bernice King, Martin Luther King’s daughter, who spoke after the former presidents, noted that there were no women on the programme 50 years ago, but that a number of powerful women spoke Wednesday afternoon.
(Arun Kumar can be contacted at [email protected])