Washington: As his military leaders prepared for a possible missile strike, President Barack Obama addressed thousands gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in tribute to one of last century’s greatest proponents of non-violence, Martin Luther King, who 50 years ago today inspired a quarter of million people with an address now known simply as the I Have a Dream speech.
At the Lincoln Memorial on a day of warm summer rain rather than the sunblasted heat of the original March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, President Obama said of those who attended five decades ago that, ‘‘In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tormenters. In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in with the moral force of non-violence.’’
The most famous passage of Dr King’s speech was almost never spoken.
‘‘And because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed,’’ he said.
President Barack Obama speaks at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Photo: AP
‘‘Because they marched, the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes.
Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed.’’
The President linked the achievements of the civil rights movement to gains made by other groups in the United States and across the world.
‘‘Because they marched, America became more free and more fair, not just for African-Americans but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, for Catholics, Jews and Muslims, for gays, for Americans with disabilities.’’
He said it dishonoured the memory of heroes and martyrs of the movement to deny its successes.
‘‘To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, 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.
‘‘Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Martin Luther King Jr., they did not die in vain. Their victory was great.’’
But he acknowledged more needed to be done to ensure equality was not only secured but maintained, alluding to the Supreme Court’s recent changes to the Voting Rights Act — passed in response the civil rights movement — and the mass incarceration of young black men. He spoke out against politicians who condemned the role of government, or said it served only to take voters’ hard-earned money in tax to distribute it in welfare.
‘‘When we turn not from each other or on each other but towards one another, and we find that we do not walk alone. That’s where courage comes from,’’ he said.
‘‘And with that courage, we can stand together for good jobs and just wages. With that courage, we can stand together for the right to health care in the richest nation on earth for every person.
‘‘With that courage, we can stand together for the right of every child, from the corners of Anacostia to the hills of Appalachia, to get an education that stirs the mind and captures the spirit and prepares them for the world that awaits them.
‘‘With that courage, we can feed the hungry and house the homeless and transform bleak wastelands of poverty into fields of commerce and promise.’’
After finishing his address President Obama joined his wife Michelle and former presidents Clinton and Carter and disappeared into the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial to pay homage to the Civil War president he had earlier referred to as the Great Emancipator.
At 3pm, before the President spoke, members of the King family rang a bell saved from the 16th St Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama that had beenplaced on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr King spoke.
Just weeks after Dr King’s address the church was bombed, killing four young girls. As it chimed, bells rang out in Washington, DC, and across the nation - including the Liberty Bell at Independence Hall in Philadelphia — as well as around the world in capitals including Tokyo and London.
The most famous passage of Dr King’s speech was almost never spoken. The night before the speech Dr King and his entourage were too busy organising the first ever mass rally on the National Mall for him to pay attention to the address.
He was partway through his prepared address the following afternoon — the last of many speakers on a long hot afternoon — when the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out to him, ‘‘Tell them about the dream, Martin’’, referring to earlier speeches he had made.
Dr King put his notes aside and launched into the crucial passage of the speech off the cuff, telling the crowd, ‘‘I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed - we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’’
He described a future in which black and white children might hold hands in friendship, and in which his own four children might one day be judged ‘‘not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.’’
Less than five years later those children lost their father when Dr King was murdered in Memphis, but going by the banners and T-shirts worn by members of the crowd today, Dr King continues to serve as an inspiration to activists now battling spreading voter identification regulations and so-called Stand Your Ground laws, as well high rates of African American poverty and unemployment.