There were many things that were different on this August 28, 2013, compared to the same Wednesday 50 years ago. And yet, the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. was the unifying element of the peaceful protests then and now.
First the weather: Whereas 50 years ago protesters marched under a sweltering summer heat, this time there was an autumn-like air with almost constant drizzling rain. And this may have influenced the turnout, as only several thousands of people flocked to the area between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Half a century ago close to 250,000 took part in the historic March on Washington. And while the focus of the 1963 event was on jobs and freedom, this time signs and chants indicated how the scope of the fight for black equality had broadened to include women, gays, immigrants and even environmental issues. And finally the speakers: They were ten 50 years ago, while this Wednesday’s program included several dozens of participants – and lasted five hours.
Only one of them spoke in 1963 and 2013: John Lewis, a students’ rights activist then and a veteran civil rights activist today. Lewis, who was the youngest speaker at the original event, grew up in the cotton fields of Alabama and has served in Congress for more than 25 years, representing Georgia for the Democrats. He recalled participating in the Freedom Rides “in the same year Barack Obama was born” to end segregation in public transportation. “Fifty years later, we can ride wherever we want to ride, we can stay wherever we want to stay,” he said.
Nevertheless, “too many of us still believe our differences divide us,” Lewis said. He urged Americans to fight to end the “scars and stains of racism,” such as stop-and-frisk policing, mass incarceration, chronic hunger and attacks on voting rights. “We must never, ever give up,” Lewis said. “We must keep the faith and keep our eyes on the prize.”
Lewis was preceded by television host and actress Oprah Winfrey, who called on the members of the crowd to celebrate the spirit of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by committing themselves to a life of service. “As we, the people, continue to honor the dream of a man and a movement,” she said, “we can be inspired, and we too can be courageous by continuing to walk in the footsteps in the path that he forged.”
Winfrey was one of the stars of the event’s participants that also included Academy Award winning actors Jamie Foxx and Forest Whittaker, presidential daughters Caroline Kennedy and Linda Johnson Robb, several members of Martin Luther King’s family as well as an army of civic, labor and religious leaders. They all honored Martin Luther King, Jr., but also called for future action: “We’re not here to declare victory,” Andrew Young told the crowd, the retired ambassador to the UN and mayor of Atlanta. “We’re here to simply say that the struggle continues.”
But it was the presence of the first black US president that turned Wednesday’s commemoration into a ringing celebration of the civil rights movement’s success. As many speakers pointed out, Barack Obama can be considered as the supreme prize of half a century of fighting for equality of opportunities in American society. An emotional Obama, who was accompanied by the two living Democratic former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, paid tribute to the trailblazer Martin Luther King, Jr.
King’s speech, Obama said, inspired millions of Americans to fight for a more just society and rights that people now take for granted. “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. “But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete,” he said, calling economic justice the “unfinished business” of the civil rights battle.
Obama said that the anniversary of King’s address should not obscure the unnamed, unknown activists who agitated to end segregation and who inspired other social justice causes ranging from women’s rights to gay rights. “They had every reason to lash out in anger…and yet they choose a different path,” Obama said. “In the face of hatred they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence they stood up and set in,” he added. “Because they kept marching America changed. Because they marched America became more free and more fair.”
America must carry on the torch. “We’ll suffer the occasional setback but we will win these fights,” Obama said. Yet, the president said that in the face of income inequality, inadequate healthcare and daunting levels of unemployment, the African-American community and Americans in general cannot afford to be complacent. “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice but it does not bend on its own,” Obama said, echoing a phrase that King himself once popularized.