Standing on the steps where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told of his dream of racial equality, President Obama on Wednesday described half a century of uneven progress toward colorblind justice and tried to rally a new “coalition of conscience” to complete the unfinished work.
On a drizzly summer day, thousands huddled under umbrellas in front of the Lincoln Memorial to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and watch the first black president pay homage to the movement that cleared a path for his election.
“Because they kept marching, America changed,” Obama said, at times adopting the cadence of a black preacher and echoing phrases from King’s speech. “Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed.”
The president downplayed the inevitable comparisons to King, but spoke of rekindling the fervor the civil rights leader had inspired: “We may never duplicate the swelling crowds and dazzling procession of that day so long ago -- no one can match King’s brilliance -- but the same flame that lit the heart of all who are willing to take a first step for justice -- I know that flame remains.”
Obama’s remarks cap- ped a nearly five-hour commemoration of a march that became one of the most iconic moments in the struggle for black equality in the U.S. Former Presidents Clinton and Carter, Oprah Winfrey and Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the only living speaker from the original march, joined a lineup of musicians, union leaders, actors and politicians.
The event drew a diverse crowd that was smaller than in 1963, when more than 200,000 gathered for a protest that King said would “go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” On Wednesday, people lined up along most of the length of the reflecting pool.
Linda Wills, 59, who had attended the first march, said the recent Supreme Court decision striking down a key section of the Voting Rights Act showed the movement’s work was not done.
“We’ve been set back,” she said. “I’m going to remain a part of the movement until change comes, if the Lord lets me live long enough.”
Lewis was 23 and the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when he helped organize the 1963 march. Now a veteran lawmaker, he was one of many speakers who also cast the state of race relations as improved but still troubled.
“There are still invisible signs buried in the hearts in humankind that form a gulf between us,” he said. “The scars and stains of racism still remain deeply embedded in American society.”
Speakers stood in front of a massive bell from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where a bomb killed four black girls weeks after the march. About 3 p.m., the time King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech and his call to “let freedom ring,” members of his family rang the bell to honor the assassinated leader.
But the event also carried more political notes. The political figures at the podium, all Democrats, often veered from reflective remembrance to calls for action on current legislative battles. Clinton and Carter decried the Supreme Court’s recent decision overturning parts of the Voting Rights Act and called for tighter gun laws, which Republicans blocked earlier this year.
“A great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon,” Clinton said, adding a tough-love message to his political allies: “And I would respectfully suggest that Martin Luther King did not live and die to hear his heirs whine about political gridlock. It is time to stop complaining and put our shoulders against the stubborn gates holding the American people back.”
Republican politicians invited to the event passed on the high-profile platform to promote their vision of the civil rights landscape and their effort to reach out to black voters. House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio chose to speak at a congressional ceremony last month instead, spokesman Brendan Buck said. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia had previously scheduled events in North Dakota and Ohio, an aide said.
Former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush could not attend for health reasons, their spokesmen said. The elder Bush, who at 89 uses a wheelchair, rarely attends public events. His son, the 43rd president, is still recovering from a recent heart procedure, his spokesman said.
The absence of even a gesture of bipartisanship was a reminder of the enduring political legacy of the civil rights battles. Since Democrats led the passage of civil rights legislation that marchers pushed for in 1963, Republicans have struggled to recover with black voters, leaving a stark racial divide in American politics.
“It’s highly unlikely that any of us three over on my right would have served in the White House or be on this platform had it not been for Martin Luther King Jr. and his movement,” Carter said.
Obama, too, recognized his debt to the movement, but also acknowledged its troubled history and his complex relationship to it. The president learned of King and other movement leaders from his white mother. He has identified as part of the “Joshua generation” -- the children of the movement’s founders charged with carrying on the legacy, but he has also criticized the civil rights movement as fractured and misguided.
On Wednesday, the president repeated some of that critique. Over time, a legitimate call for equality of opportunity “was too often framed as a mere desire for government support ... as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself,” Obama said. “All of that history is how progress stalled. That’s how hope was diverted. It’s how our country remained divided.”
The president who rode to office as a part of a broad coalition united for change has been unable to fully mobilize voters behind his policy plans. Since his reelection, he has suffered defeats on gun legislation, and his hopes for an immigration bill have dimmed. His economic plans, too, appear stuck in divided government.
The president tried to capitalize on the King legacy to build some momentum.
“We’ll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago,” Obama said.
Christi Parsons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.