President Barack Obama commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom Wednesday, with an address at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, the same place Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” Speech in 1963.
The president seized the symbolic circumstances to reflect on the historic march and the progress American society has made since August 1963. He also, however, used his time at the lectern to argue that King’s economic dream has yet to be realized. Finally, he urged “constant vigilance, not complacency” by Americans to ensure King’s vision be met.
Obama began with an assessment of how far-reaching King’s speech was. “We rightly and best remember Dr. King’s soaring oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions, how he offered a salvation path for oppressed and oppressors alike.”
He then similarly praised those who attended the march and noted societal accomplishments that should be attributed to them. “Because they marched,” Obama said, “the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open.”
But, like King’s 1963 address, the crux of Obama’s speech dealt with real-world political issues, not history or abstraction.
“We would dishonor those heroes to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete,” he said. “The shadow of poverty casts a pall over our youth, their lives a fortress of substandard schools and diminished prospects, inadequate health care and perennial violence.”
President Obama then pointed to the political system to account for continued income inequality. He talked about lobbyists and businessmen with “entrenched interests” for not giving working families a “fair deal,” and said, “We’d be told that growing inequality was the price for a growing economy, a measure of the free market — that greed was good and compassion ineffective.”
He also placed blame on individuals who use bigotry or poverty as an excuse and do not take initiative themselves. “Racial politics could cut both ways,” Obama said.
Nevertheless, the president ended on an uplifting note. He claimed the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. can be found in individuals all over the U.S., and argued that everyday people like teachers, mothers and fathers have the opportunity to further King’s message. “And that’s the lesson of our past, that’s the promise of tomorrow,” Obama said. “That in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.”