President Obama paid tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Wednesday before throngs of people who descended on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech, declaring that “his words belong to the ages.”
King’s address, delivered to 250,000 supporters, punctuated the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was a watershed moment for race relations in America that has been remembered in a week-long series of events, which culminated in remarks from President Obama on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial Wednesday afternoon.
“His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time,” Obama said of King. “We rightly and best remember Dr. King’s soaring oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions.”
Pointing to laws, social change, and himself as an example of how far the nation has come since King’s speech, Obama was quick to highlight economic disparities between whites and blacks as proof that King’s dream hasn’t been fully realized.
But he chided those who dismiss the gains that have been made by the people who marched for civil rights in 1963.
“On the battlefield of justice, men and women without rank, or wealth, or title, or fame would liberate us all, in ways that our children now take for granted,” Obama said. “To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest as some sometimes do that little has changed, that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years.”
Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Jamie Foxx were among a list of speakers who addressed a nation that has made great strides in racial equality since King’s “dream” speech helped bring about landmark civil rights legislation.
“Dr. King was the passionate voice that awakened the conscience of the nation,” Winfrey told the people in the crowd, urging them to carry on his message. “He challenged us to see how we all are more alike than we are different.”
According to BCT Consulting, the organizers of today’s event, there were “give or take 100,000 folks in today’s attendance.”
Betty Gray, 67, traveled to Washington from Richmond, Va., for the anniversary of the speech, which she went to 50 years ago. She said she took the NAACP bus for four dollars round-trip 50 years ago and went because her mother was a civil rights activist who was honored by former President Harry Truman for helping sign black people up to vote.
“It’s in my mom’s memory that I’m here today,” said Gray, who also attended both inaugurations for Obama.
Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter also spoke at the ceremony, which included bell-ringing at 3 p.m. ET — 50 years to the minute after King called for civil rights with the words “let freedom ring.”
“I’m thankful to Martin Luther King Jr. that his dream is still alive,” Carter said.
Clinton thanked those who attended King’s march.
“What a debt we owe to those people who came here 50 years ago,” he said, adding that King “urged the victims of racial violence to meet white Americans with an outstreched hand, not a clenched fist.”
About 50 communities and organizations across the U.S. rang bells when the clock struck 3 p.m.
Tokyo and the Swiss city of Lutry also took part in the bell-ringing, an event organizer told Reuters.
Former President George W. Bush, who wasn’t in attendance, called on the nation to carry on King’s legacy in a statement released Wednesday.
In addition to the current and former presidents scheduled to speak Wednesday, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia will address the crowd. Lewis was the youngest speaker at the 1963 march and delivered a speech that admonished the Kennedy administration for doing “too little, too late” for southern blacks.
Lewis was among the civil rights advocates who spoke out last weekend against the Supreme Court’s ruling on voting laws as thousands retraced King’s footsteps in an organized march.
“This moment in our history has been a long time coming, but the change has come. We our standing here in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln, 150 years after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation,” Lewis said.
Lewis described to the crowd how in the 1960s, “black and white people could not be seated together on a Greyhound bus.” King’s words, he said, “captured the heart of people, not just around America, but around the world.”
“Fifty years later, we can ride anywhere we want to ride,” Lewis said.