WASHINGTON — Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American president, marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on Wednesday by calling for economic equality — a crucial step to long-sought-after racial equality — as he pushed to usher in a new era of civil rights in the United States.
Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — the same spot where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. captivated a nation with his “I Have a Dream” speech — Obama said this sometimes-forgotten theme of that historic day a half-century ago remains elusive.
“The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few,” Obama said. “It's whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran.”
A crowd of spectators, many wearing rain ponchos on the drizzly day, packed the National Mall to celebrate the day in 1963 when hundreds of thousands of Americans gathered in the nation's capital to push for the freedoms that eventually would be enshrined into laws that ban discrimination against minorities based on race, ethnicity and religion.
They held a smattering of homemade signs Wednesday. “I was there,” read one sign. “Let freedom ring,” read another.
Obama was joined on the memorial's steps by first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and former Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, who made brief remarks.
The two living Republican former presidents didn't attend. George H.W. Bush is ailing, and his son George W. Bush is recovering from a heart procedure performed earlier this month.
The “Let Freedom Ring” ceremony capped a week of prayer services, training sessions, round-table discussions and seminars to commemorate the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
There was even a march Wednesday morning, led by a replica of the bus that Rosa Parks rode when she refused to give up her seat to a white man in 1955.
Celebrities, including media mogul Oprah Winfrey, actor Jamie Foxx and singer LeAnn Rimes, made appearances.
Ellie Moyer, 75, a retiree from New York City who was in town Wednesday, recalled that people threw rocks at the bus that took her and others to and from Washington when she came to the original March on Washington.
“It was truly horrible. There was so much prejudice in every way, shape or form,” she said. “I'm glad that to a certain degree we are past that type of outward prejudice, but there is still an undercurrent in this country. ... We've come a long way, but (it's) not enough.”
Wednesday's mood was joyful but subdued, with present-day realities seeping into the festivities. Vendors hawked T-shirts honoring Trayvon Martin, the black teenager shot to death in Florida last year by a white neighborhood watch coordinator.
Obama — who represents the fulfilled dreams of some of the same people who fought for equality half a century ago — spoke just after 3 p.m. when a bell from the Birmingham, Ala., church that was bombed in 1963 rang to mark King's historic speech. Members of the King family tolled the bell to echo King's call 50 years earlier to “let freedom ring.”
“The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn't bend on its own,” Obama said. “To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency.”
Obama has been reluctant to speak about the complicated issue of race despite his own unique place in history. His reticence has drawn criticism from African-Americans who say he should contribute to the dialogue. But in his second term, Obama has been more vocal on issues of economic inequality, voting rights and criminal justice.
Obama, who keeps a bust of King and a framed program from the march in the Oval Office, has said the civil rights leader was a role model.
On Wednesday, he praised King and “those ordinary people whose names never appeared in the history books” who marched for change. “Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed, and, yes, eventually, the White House changed.”
Obama called for Americans to unite and push for equality for everyone — women and men, gay and straight, black and white, immigrants and native born — when it comes to classrooms, ballot boxes and prisons. And, of course, when it comes to paychecks.
He said technology and global competition have decreased jobs for the middle class and lowered their wages. Black unemployment has remained almost twice as high as white unemployment.
“We must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks could join the ranks of millionaires,” he said. “It was whether this country would admit all people who are willing to work hard regardless of race into the ranks of a middle-class life.”
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 Americans to “keep the faith and keep our eyes on the prize.”
The throngs assembled at the Lincoln Memorial this time came 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.
Clinton and Carter spoke of King's legacy — and of problems still to overcome.
“This march, and that speech, changed America,” Clinton declared, remembering the impact on the world and on himself as a young man. “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. “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.
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 others who came from ordinary ranks to engage “on the battlefield of justice” — and he implored Americans not to dismiss what they accomplished.
“To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest — as some sometimes do — that little has changed, that dishonors the courage, the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years,” Obama said.
“Their victory was great. But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete.”
Myrlie Evers-Williams, whose husband Medgar Evers was murdered in 1963, said that while the country “has certainly taken a turn backwards” on civil rights she was energized to move ahead and exhorted others to step forward as well.
King's eldest son, Martin Luther King III, just 5 when his father spoke at the Mall, talked of a dream not realized in full.
“We've got a lot of work to do, but none of us should be any ways tired,” he said. “Why? Because we've come much too far from where we started.”
This article includes material from the Associated Press.