WASHINGTON — 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.
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. “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 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.