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MLK's dream inspires a new march, and a president

By Nancy Benac & Suzanne Gamboa

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 02:41 a.m. HST, Aug 29, 2013

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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. "This is hands-on history."

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, remembering the impact on the world and 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, 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, leading the celebrity contingent, 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.

"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 great. But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete."

Civil rights activist 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, spoke of a dream "not yet 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."

Organizers of the rally broadened the focus well beyond racial issues, bringing speakers forward to address the environment, gay rights, the challenges facing the disabled and more. The performers, too, were an eclectic crowd, ranging from Maori haka dancers to LeAnn Rimes singing "Amazing Grace."

Jamie Foxx tried to fire up a new generation of performers and ordinary "young folks" by drawing on the example of Harry Belafonte, who stood with King 50 years ago.

"It's time for us to stand up now and renew this dream," Foxx declared.

Forest Whitaker told the crowd it was their "moment to join those silent heroes of the past."

"You now have the responsibility to carry the torch."

Slate gray skies gave way to sunshine briefly peeking from the clouds as the "Let Freedom Ring" commemoration unfolded. After that, an intermittent rain.

Obama spoke with a bit of a finger-wag at times, saying that "if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way." He spoke of "self-defeating riots," recriminations, times when "the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself."

But the president said that though progress stalled at times, "the good news is, just as was true in 1963, we now have a choice."

"We can continue down our current path, in which the gears of this great democracy grind to a halt and our children accept a life of lower expectations; where politics is a zero-sum game where a few do very well while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking economic pie — that's one path. Or we can have the courage to change."

Among faces in the crowd: lawyer Ollie Cantos of Arlington, Va., there with his 14-year-old triplets Leo, Nick and Steven. All four are blind, and they moved through the crowd with their hands on each other's shoulders, in a makeshift train.

Cantos, who is Filipino, said he brought his sons to help teach them the continuing fight for civil rights.

"The disability rights movement that I'm a part of, that I dedicate my life to, is actually an extension of the original civil rights movement," said Cantos. "I wanted to do everything I can to school the boys in the ways of the civil rights movement and not just generally but how it affects them personally."

D.C. plumber Jerome Williams, whose family tree includes North Carolina sharecroppers, took the day off work to come with his wife and two kids. "It's a history lesson that they can take with them for the rest of their lives," he said.

It seemed to work. His son Jalen, marking his 17th birthday, said: "I'm learning the history and the stories from my dad. I do appreciate what I do have now."

Performers included Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey, their voices thinner now than when they performed at the original march as part of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. They sang "Blowin' in the Wind," as the parents of slain black teenager Trayvon Martin joined them on stage and sang along. The third member of the trio, Mary Travers, died in 2009.

Also joining the day's events were Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, daughter of Lyndon Johnson, the president who signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and Caroline Kennedy, daughter of John F. Kennedy.

Former President George W. Bush didn't attend, but said in a statement, Obama's presidency is a story that reflects "the promise of America" and "will help us honor the man who inspired millions to redeem that promise." A spokesman said the former president declined to attend because he was recovering from a recent heart procedure.

Associated Press writers Darlene Superville, Brett Zongker and Andrew Miga contributed to this report.

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control wrote:
it's too bad that many of them are still trying to bring the trayvon martin killing as part of this cause. it detracts from the dream that MLK had and points to the glaring problem that is going on in the black community. maybe if they cleaned up their act, stop criminal activity, stop killing other blacks then maybe they can accomplish King's dream. until then it will only be a dream.
on August 28,2013 | 09:33AM
serious wrote:
control, notice their are no whites in the crowd. THEY ARE ALL AT WORK!!!!
on August 28,2013 | 01:15PM
false wrote:
Ever watch the Republican National Convention? 99% white.
on August 28,2013 | 01:49PM
1local wrote:
quit dreaming - enough ineptness in government...
on August 28,2013 | 03:23PM
Grimbold wrote:
I wished Blacks would be more competitive and enterprising and not wait for others to employ them. Just like the Jews build their own economic network and connections and employ their own kind with preference. And fathering children and then run away is also not helping. Obama's father was a similar thing, only he was saved by white grandparents.
on August 28,2013 | 01:36PM
allie wrote:
same has been said of many Native Americans and Hawaiians. Sometimes it is a fair complaint, sometimes not. It is true that individual responsibility and hard work, deferred wants and education are still tickets to rapid socio-economic advance. Race preferences can destroy a people who become too dependent on them.
on August 28,2013 | 01:52PM
nalogirl wrote:
Bill Cosby also said that blacks are disgracing their own race. Also, when are white people going to be able to have days and days of marching for our race? I'm so sick of this black history that never ends.
on August 28,2013 | 01:42PM
kahuku01 wrote:
I agree wholeheartedly. Yes, just gathering together and doing a march and saying, "we shall overcome," will not change their known reputation towards people or property. First, before anything else, majority of them must overcome their negative attitude towards mankind and start living a dream to be successful and productive citizen in their communities. The blacks are listed as number one in prisons, and yes, they need to clean up their act, and stop all those criminal activities and perhaps this country will start living harmoniously amongst all races. It's not all about equal rights but to have the respect towards other people and property and having a goal to be a law abiding citizen. The leaders of the march overlooked to emphasize the importance of changing the bad reputation that they have instilled towards other races and themselves. Negative attitudes and using "I am a Black" as an excuse, must change before King's, 'I have a dream," speech becomes a reality.
on August 28,2013 | 02:39PM
false wrote:
The black communities would be better served by using their energies to build up their decaying family structures. You can only gain respect by leading on your own home issues, not by marching.
on August 28,2013 | 09:39AM
Ken_Conklin wrote:
"I have a dream" -- for Hawaii, 50 years later. My dream is summarized in a single paragraph. Each element of the dream has a footnote providing detailed explanations and references. Readers unfamiliar with what's happening behind the scenes in Hawaii might be surprised that I find it necessary to say these things. That's why the footnotes are very important, even if lengthy and emotionally difficult.

The essay with detailed explanations and references is available online at

Here's the core of the essay:
I have a dream that someday all Hawaii's people will embrace the concept that we are all equal in the eyes of God,[3] and we are all fully imbued with the Aloha Spirit.[4] I have a dream that all Hawaii's people will embrace the fact that we are Americans.[5] I have a dream that all Hawaii's people will embrace the fact that we have a right to be treated equally under the law by our federal and state governments; and will therefore put aside and repudiate racial entitlement programs.[6] I have a dream that all Hawaii's people will put aside and repudiate efforts to create a race-based government and to divide the lands and people of Hawaii along racial lines.[7] I have a dream that someday Caucasian boys and girls who are born and raised in Hawaii will be treated as locals, keiki o ka 'aina, kama'aina; and that malihini and kama'aina Caucasians will no longer be subjected to racial epithets and racial hate crimes.[8]

on August 28,2013 | 11:10AM
Grimbold wrote:
Ken, you see things right. There exist real reverse racist problems. Schools do not adress them properly and neither do many parents.
on August 28,2013 | 01:40PM
hanalei395 wrote:
Ken's dream is for him to be called, to be known as a "Hawaiian". While the real Hawaiians, ....... be known, called, "Ethnic Hawaiians". ........ When Ken fades away, his dream will fade along with him.
on August 28,2013 | 02:57PM
scooters wrote:
Life is hard, it's even harder when you're stupid.. there's plenty of those on the Washington Mall today...
on August 28,2013 | 11:21AM
Grimbold wrote:
Wealth is on average a direct consequence of applying your intelligence. Alas, that is why there is so much poverty.
on August 28,2013 | 01:42PM
scooters wrote:
Amazing that you mention a do nothing president and big brother cuts your post.
on August 28,2013 | 11:35AM
steelinhome wrote:
What is the content of President Obama's character?
on August 28,2013 | 11:50AM
DownSpout wrote:
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina--and so, from the "Old South" with its legacy of discrimination--is the only black senator. Why wasn't he invited to speak? Would't that have been an appropriate recognition of how far we've come since the old Jim Crow days? And, unliike the President, who was the keynote speaker, I believe Sen. Scott is more than half black.
on August 28,2013 | 02:05PM
MakaniKai wrote:
Obama knows his American ancestry and legacy is that of his Caucasian family. He has no slave history in the U.S. no sharecropper stories to tell no civil rights marches; just a father from Kenya who travelled to Hawaii to attend college and then abandoned him. Growing up in the nei and attending Punahou; raised by his white grandparents is an experience that he knows very, very few Black Americans can identify with. He is left out; and probably why we rarely hear about Hawaii out of his mouth.
on August 28,2013 | 02:40PM
MakaniKai wrote:
Obama knows his American ancestry and legacy is that of his Caucasian family. He has no slave history in the U.S. no sharecropper stories to tell no civil rights marches; just a father from Kenya who travelled to Hawaii to attend college and then abandoned him. Growing up in the nei and attending Punahou; raised by his white grandparents is an experience that he knows very, very few Black Americans can identify with. He is left out; and probably why we rarely hear about Hawaii out of his mouth.
on August 28,2013 | 02:44PM
DownSpout wrote:
Good points. And, unliike the President who has enjoyed strolling path of privilege for most of his life, Senator Scott was raised in povety "in a single parent household in North Charleston, South Carolina, [where he] learned the importance of faith, hard work, and living within your means."
on August 28,2013 | 03:40PM
AhiPoke wrote:
The irony of this march celebrating MLK's famous speech is that we now have a black president who is probably the most racially divisive president in our lifetime.
on August 28,2013 | 02:56PM
64hoo wrote:
hes not a black president he half Indonesian and half white.
on August 28,2013 | 05:58PM
Waimea_Cowboy wrote:
Our only black Senator was not invited, since he is a republican, like Lincoln was, sigh.
on August 28,2013 | 03:05PM
jussayin wrote:
Good comments by posters. It's too bad that MLK's speech is used to focus only on the black population. I would believe or like to believe that MLK was talking about all races. USA has come a long way and I didn't watch or read the speeches today. Hopefully they recognized the many achievements in the last 50 years instead of complaining like it was in the 1960's or earlier. As my mom used to tell us as kids, stop complaining and do something constructive to make things better.
on August 28,2013 | 04:41PM
iwanaknow wrote:
I read the Presidents speech..............I thought moving..............did he write it 100% or was it ghost written? by who?
on August 28,2013 | 04:56PM
64hoo wrote:
here we go again the news media saying the speech that are first black president of this nation. I keep telling you people he is not our first African American black president. and never was his father was Indonesian and his mother was white, so Indonesia is not near Africa so stop calling him an African American president he is half Indonesian and half white.
on August 28,2013 | 05:51PM
Ewaduffer wrote:
Could be one of the greatest American speeches ever but if I hear "I have a dream" one more time today I think I'll barf!!
on August 28,2013 | 06:31PM
scooters wrote:
I had BIG Brother..mention the president and your sent for approval...Bas#ards
on August 28,2013 | 06:38PM
scooters wrote:
The POTUS tells them..keep marching. That will surely solve your problems..whats marching done for you in the past 50 years? The POTUS should have told them..stay in school, don't have babies out of wedlock( too many already) get a job and stick with it, be a productive member of society and while you're at it, pull up your trousers and wear your baseball hat the correct way..be a role model..
on August 28,2013 | 06:41PM
EwaWarrior wrote:
I have a dream that one day, people will stop playing he race card when they don't get what they think they deserve; that they stop playing the victim and expecting government to solve all their problems......
on August 29,2013 | 03:11AM
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