News & Politics

Obama: "Because They Kept Marching, America Changed.”

Highlights of three presidents, civil rights leaders, and Oprah marking 50 years since the March on Washington.

President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama on the Lincoln Memorial during the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Photograph via the White House.

Closing out a daylong ceremony to mark a half century since the momentous day when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told the world he had a dream of a more equal nation, President Obama channeled the legacy of King’s speech to praise the progress that has been made since 1963 and acknowledge the hills that remain.

“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 a disability,” Obama said. “America changed for you and for me and the entire world drew strength from that example, whether the young people who watched from the other side of an Iron Curtain and would eventually tear down that wall, or the young people inside South Africa who would eventually end the scourge of apartheid.”

Obama took the podium last at the event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Under overcast skies that drizzled on the tens of thousands who trudged through a tight security perimeter, Obama joined a cast of speakers that included two former presidents; Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia; Oprah Winfrey; and King’s family.

“We might not face the same dangers as 1963, but the fierce urgency of now remains,” Obama said later in his remarks. “We may never duplicate the swelling crowds and dazzling processions of that day so long ago, no one can match King’s brilliance, but the same flames that lit the heart of all who are willing to take a first step for justice, I know that flame remains.”

The president’s full speech is available here.

Speakers throughout the program touched on the history-making days of 1963 and civil rights issues that linger today, including a recent Supreme Court decision striking down part of the Voting Rights Act and the not-guilty verdict in the trial over the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.

Among the other highlighted speakers:

Former President Bill Clinton:

In the shadow of Lincoln’s statute, the burning memory of the fact that he gave his life to preserve the Union and end slavery, Martin Luther King urged his crowd not to drink from the cup of bitterness but to reach across the racial divide because, he said, we cannot walk alone. Their destiny is tied up with our destiny. Their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

Former President Jimmy Carter:

We know how Dr. King would have reacted to the people of the District of Columbia still not having full citizenship.

Christine King Farris, sister of Martin Luther King Jr.:

The dream my brother shared with our nation and the world on that sweltering day 50 years ago continues to nurture and sustain nonviolent activists worldwide and their struggles for freedom.

Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia:

The scars and stains of racism still remain deeply embedded in American society, whether it is stop and frisk in New York or injustice in Trayvon Martin case in Florida, the mass incarceration of millions of Americans, immigrants hiding in fear in the shadow of our society, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, hunger or the renewed struggle for voting rights.

DC Mayor Vince Gray:

[King] encouraged Americans to let freedom ring not only “from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado” and “the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania,” but also “from Stone Mountain of Georgia” and “every hill and molehill of Mississippi.” There was one place that Dr. King didn’t mention in that speech, but about which he later spoke out forcefully: the District of Columbia.

Martin Luther King III:

No one ever told any of us that our road would be easy. I know that our God, our God, our God would not bring all of us this far to leave us.

Oprah Winfrey:

How will the dream live in me, in you, in all of us? As the bells toll, let us remind ourselves: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” As the bells toll, we commit to a life of service because Dr. King, one of my favorite quotes from him is, “Not everybody can be famous, but everybody can be great because greatness is determined by service.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.