President Barack Obama honored the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 2013 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on the same time, date and location that King gave his iconic and historic speech on racial equality 50 years earlier. It was only fitting that the first African American president delivered the key speech of the 50th anniversary of the march. Obama’s speech at the “Let Freedom Ring” ceremony capped a week of anniversary festivities and events honoring the key and tide turning civil rights moment in American history.
Over 100,000 people attended the “Let Freedom Ring Commemoration and Call to Action” march and ceremony and President Obama’s speech. This is the second march this week to honor the one in 1963. This march happening the same day as the original was organized by the 50th Anniversary Coalition for Jobs, Justice and Freedom, and the major civil rights organizations including the NAACP. In 1963, nearly 250,000 attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’s, still the anniversary garnered a significant crowd.
The date August 28, has become symbolic since 1963 for civil rights milestones; in 2008, Obama formally received the Democratic Presidential Nomination on the 45th anniversary of King’s speech and the March on Washington. Then, Obama stood in front of a set of columns meant to invoke the Lincoln Memorial, five years later and a year into his second term, the first African American president spoke at real the Lincoln Memorial as proof the dream has been realized.
President Obama’s nearly half-hour speech discussed how far African Americans have come and how much more America needs to go to realize King’s vision and dream particularly in the area economy equality, jobs and ability to reach the middle class. The President’s speech combined both themes of the 1963 march, racial and economic equality; it was a tribute to Martin Luther King and the civil rights workers at the first march in 1963, with the aims and programs for middle class economic equality and jobs creation, which he has emphasized throughout a summer policy tour.
President Obama, who has not spoken much about race throughout his presidency, and has also been criticized for not promoting enough policies to help African Americans, tried to denounce that King’s dream has not been realized. Obama stated; “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.” The President referenced how far America has come since that hot summer day in 1963, saying; “Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed, America changed for you and for me.” Obama made very few personal references, and this may have the only one identifying him within the context of the race.
Still, Obama admitted more had to be done to complete the dream, saying; “Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Martin Luther King Jr., they did not die in vain. Their victory was great. But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own…. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency… Keep on marching.”
While the first part of President Obama’s speech focused on race and how far America has gotten to realizing King’s dream, the second part focused the economic issues, with a not so subtle push of his own middle plan. Obama stated; “They were there seeking jobs as well as justice — not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?” Obama described King’s economic dream, and the present short comings; “What King was describing has been the dream of every American. It’s what’s lured for centuries new arrivals to our shores. And it’s along this second dimension of economic opportunity, the chance through honest toil to advance one’s station in life, that the goals of 50 years ago have fallen most short…. the position of all working Americans, regardless of color, has eroded, making the dream Dr. King described even more elusive.”
President Obama’s rhetoric also used a repetitive motif to invoke King’s 17-minute “I Have a Dream speech.” King repeatedly used the word “dream” whereas, Obama used “marched.” The President first spoke of the power of marching at the beginning of his speech discussing the civil rights workers, volunteers and advocates that were in Washington in 1963. Obama stated; “And because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes.”
Towards his concluding remarks, Obama again invoked the theme of marching, this time discussing the different ways people march today. Obama stated the differences between the quest for equality in 1963 and now, saying; “We might not face the same dangers as 1963, but the fierce urgency of now remains. 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 concluded the theme saying; “Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day, that change does not come from Washington but to Washington, that change has always been built on our willingness, we, the people, to take on the mantle of citizenship — you are marching.”
The President admitted in an interview on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, which aired on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013, that the speech he would give could never equal King’s, commenting; “It won’t be as good as the speech 50 years ago. I just want to get that out there early.” The President explained; “When you are talking about Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington, you’re talking about one of the maybe five greatest speeches in American history. And the words that he spoke at that particular moment, with so much at stake, and the way in which he captured the hopes and dreams of an entire generation I think is unmatched.” Still, President Obama’s speech stirred the crowd and is bound to be remembered as a decisive speech of his presidency.
Historian and Rice University professor Douglas Brinkley speaking with CBS’s Scott Pelley during the network’s coverage of Obama’s address commented on the quality of the President’s speech, stating; “I think it’s one of the great speeches that Barack Obama’s ever delivered. It had a theme of – the coalition of the conscience, he put it – about moral and economic justice. So, in President Obama’s history, it’s a seminal moment…. very beautifully written.”
The “Let Freedom Ring Commemoration and Call to Action” event began with a 1.6-mile march through downtown D.C. at 9 A.M. followed by a ceremony with 60 speeches at the Lincoln Memorial. The speakers included former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, the children of the significant presidents during the Civil Rights Movement; John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s daughter Lynda Johnson Robb, the only living speaker from the 1963 march Georgia Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Al Sharpton, members of King’s family, but also politicians and present civil rights organizations’ leaders, and significant African American entertainers and actors, including Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker and Jamie Foxx. Noticeably missing was any Republican leaders, whether they were African American or not. The “Let Freedom Ring” event seemed to focus on the commercialism of celebrating the anniversary, rather than the unifying mission that propelled the 1963 march.
President Obama was joined by the two other Democratic Presidents speaking earlier in the ceremony. The three presidents each grew up in different generations, having seen and been affected by the civil rights movement at different points. Both Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton used their speeches to give their own personal reflections on the impact King had on their lives and paths to the White House. Carter stated; “I think most people know that it’s highly unlikely that any of us three over on my right would have served in the White House or be on this platform had it not been for Martin Luther King Jr. and his movement, his crusade for civil rights. So we’re grateful to him for us being here.” While Clinton reminisced where he was during the first march, saying; “”This march and that speech changed America. They opened minds, they melted hearts, and they moved millions – including a 17-year-old boy watching alone in his home in Arkansas.”
Both Presidents Carter and Clinton described how much still has to be done for equality to be a reality. Jimmy Carter lamented the recent Supreme Court decision striking down elements of the Voting Rights Act. Carter acknowledged “There is a tremendous agenda ahead of us.” While Bill Clinton claimed that King “did not die to hear his heirs whine about political gridlock. It’s time to stop complaining and put our shoulders against the stubborn gates holding Americans back.”
Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) captured the essence of the 1963 march and what the anniversary means better than any of the other speakers at the event. Lewis summed it all up when he said; “When I look out over this diverse crowd and survey the guests on this platform, it seems to realize what Otis Redding was singing about and what Martin Luther King Jr. preached about: This moment in our history has been a long time coming, but a change has come.”
Across the country, in every state 300 bells, mostly church bells rang at 3 p.m. to remember the moment King finished speaking at the march in 1963, and to memorialize the line in King’s conclusion, “let freedom ring” trying to actualize King’s phrase, “when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city.” At the Lincoln Memorial the bell from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that was bombed in 1963, one of the casualties of the civil rights movement was rung also at the same time symbolically, it was only after that President Obama stepped up to the podium to speak.
When he completed his speech President Obama was joined on the stage by First Lady Michelle Obama, Caroline Kennedy, Lynda Johnson Robb, Rep. John Lewis, and former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. He greeted the King family, who were sitting on the stage for the speech.
Approximately 250,000 marchers descended on the National Mall in Washington 50 years ago, marking the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedoms. It is considered according to President Obama the “seminal event” of the civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the best if not the best political speeches of the 20th century. In 1999, a group of 140 academics deemed it the most influential speech of the 20th century, a fact that is being recalled by most media outlets this anniversary week.
The National Archives website described the 1963 march, writing; “Not only was it the largest demonstration for human rights in United States history, but it also occasioned a rare display of unity among the various civil rights organizations. The event began with a rally at the Washington Monument featuring several celebrities and musicians.” The original agenda included 18 events, including prayer, musical performances and 10 speeches ending with King’s address delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and the agenda concluding with the words “We shall overcome.” The march and King’s speech ensured the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act the next year and then the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
The week-long commemoration started with the National Urban League held a two-day summit on Friday, Aug. 23 and Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013. Then also on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013 marchers descended on the National Mall and the Lincoln Memorial for the “National Action to Realize the Dream” march, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington. They were trying to recreate the moment, but unlike 1963 when the focus of march was predominantly concerning “‘jobs and freedom’ and equal rights, this new march dealt with the civil rights issues of the today including; “voter-ID laws, the Voting Rights Act, “Stand Your Ground” gun laws, and racial profiling.” Marchers listened to the speeches and then marched the same route used 50 years earlier.
The first march commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march was organized by Martin Luther King III and Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network. Politicians and civil rights movement legends spoke of King and his legacy and the issues of today, and how far racial equality has really gotten. The major speakers included: Attorney General Eric Holder; the Rev. Al Sharpton; Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.; Medgar Evers’ widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams; New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker; Trayvon Martin’s mother, and various civil-rights leaders.
Attorney General Holder discussed how far racial equality has come to bring Americans to this moment. Holder stated; “Fifty years later, their march is now our march, and it must go on.” Holder continued saying without the civil rights forbearers “I would not be attorney general of the United States, and Barack Obama would not be president of the United States of America.”
Rep. John Lewis recalled that moment in 1963, saying;”Fifty years ago, I stood right here in this spot, 23 years old, had all of my hair and a few pounds lighter. So I’ve come back here again to say that those days, for the most part, are gone, but we have another fight. We must stand up and fight the good fight as we march today, for there are forces, there are people who want to take us back.” Lewis concluded that “What we must do is we must give our young people dreams again.”
The focus for many speeches was that King’s dream has not been fully realized. Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. stated; “The dream is not a static dream, the dream lives and evolves. The dream of ’63 was to end barbarism and humiliation. Martin Luther King III concluded; “Not only must we not be satisfied, we must fight back boldly. We know that the dream is far from being realized.” While Rev. Al Sharpton giving the keynote address declared; “Old things have passed away. We see a new America. We march because we’re going to bring a new America, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice — not for some, not for who you choose, not for who you like, but for all.”
On two days 50 years apart Americans came together at the Lincoln Memorial and the National Mall in honor of civil rights and the quest for racial equality. As difficult and bad as the situation was in 1963, the March on Washington and African Americans demonstrated with the strong, unified crowd of 250,000 people, how far they came 100 years since the emancipation proclamation, but stressed the long difficult road that needed to be taken to reached their goal; the dream of racial equality.
In the 50 years since then, strides have been made by leaps and bounds, getting closer all the time to the dream. Honoring the 50th anniversary of that day in 1963, Americans gathered again to show just how far African Americans have come in the quest for racial equality in just half the time. Honoring Martin Luther King’s dream, they still declared more has to be done yet. However, with each passing day we inch closer and as long as we work together, one day may all agree with King and all Americans will be able to say “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
- National Action Realize the Dream
- Let Freedom Ring Commemoration and Call to Action
- Martin Luther King “I Have a Dream” Speech, Aug. 28, 1963. YouTube
President Barack Obama at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 2013. YouTube
President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 2013. YouTube
- Full coverage of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Aug. 28, 2013.
- Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech, Aug. 28, 1963.
President Barack Obama’s Remarks at the “Let Freedom Ring” Ceremony Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 2013.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.