President Obama Marks the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington


The President:
To the King family, who have sacrificed
and inspired so much; to President Clinton;
President Carter; Vice President Biden
and Jill; fellow Americans. Five decades ago today, Americans came to this
honored place to lay claim to a promise made
at our founding: “We hold these truths
to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed
by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these
are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In 1963, almost 200 years after
those words were set to paper, a full century after
a great war was fought and emancipation proclaimed, that promise —
those truths — remained unmet. And so they came
by the thousands from every corner
of our country, men and women,
young and old, blacks who longed for freedom and whites who could no longer
accept freedom for themselves while witnessing
the subjugation of others. Across the land,
congregations sent them off with food and with prayer. In the middle of the night, entire blocks of Harlem
came out to wish them well. With the few dollars they
scrimped from their labor, some bought tickets
and boarded buses, even if they couldn’t always
sit where they wanted to sit. Those with less money
hitchhiked or walked. They were seamstresses
and steelworkers, students and teachers,
maids and Pullman porters. They shared simple meals and
bunked together on floors. And then,
on a hot summer day, they assembled here,
in our nation’s capital, under the shadow
of the Great Emancipator — to offer testimony
of injustice, to petition their
government for redress, and to awaken America’s
long-slumbering conscience. We rightly and best remember Dr. King’s soaring
oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice
to the quiet hopes of millions; how he offered a salvation path for oppressed
and oppressors alike. His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy
unmatched in our time. But we would do well to recall
that day itself also belonged to those ordinary people
whose names never appeared in the history books,
never got on TV. Many had gone
to segregated schools and sat at segregated
lunch counters. They lived in towns
where they couldn’t vote and cities where their
votes didn’t matter. They were couples in
love who couldn’t marry, soldiers who fought
for freedom abroad that they found
denied to them at home. They had seen
loved ones beaten, and children fire-hosed, and they had every reason
to lash out in anger, or resign themselves
to a bitter fate. And yet they chose
a different path. In the face of hatred, they prayed for
their tormentors. In the face of violence,
they stood up and sat in, with the moral force
of nonviolence. Willingly, they went to
jail to protest unjust laws, their cells swelling with
the sound of freedom songs. A lifetime of indignities
had taught them that no man can take away
the dignity and grace that God grants us. They had learned
through hard experience what Frederick Douglass
once taught — that freedom is not given,
it must be won, through struggle
and discipline, persistence and faith. That was the spirit they
brought here that day. That was the spirit young people
like John Lewis brought to that day. That was the spirit that they
carried with them, like a torch, back to their cities
and their neighborhoods. That steady flame of
conscience and courage that would sustain them through
the campaigns to come — through boycotts and
voter registration drives and smaller marches
far from the spotlight; through the loss of
four little girls in Birmingham, and the carnage of the
Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the agony of Dallas
and California and Memphis. Through setbacks and
heartbreaks and gnawing doubt, that flame of justice
flickered; it never died. And because they kept
marching, America changed. Because they marched,
a Civil Rights law was passed. Because they marched, a
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. (applause) Because they marched,
city councils changed and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed,
and, yes, eventually, the White House changed. (applause) 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. 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. (applause) Those are the
victories they won, with iron wills and
hope in their hearts. That is the transformation
that they wrought, with each step of
their well-worn shoes. That’s the debt that I and
millions of Americans owe those maids, those laborers, those porters,
those secretaries; folks who could have
run a company maybe if they had ever had a chance; those white students who
put themselves in harm’s way, even though they didn’t have to; those Japanese Americans who
recalled their own internment; those Jewish Americans who
had survived the Holocaust; people who could have
given up and given in, but kept on keeping on, knowing that
“weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh
in the morning.” (applause) 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, as people of all colors
and creeds live together and learn together
and walk together, and fight alongside one another,
and love one another, and judge one another by the
content of our character in this greatest
nation on Earth. 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. (applause) Medgar Evers,
James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner,
Martin Luther King Jr. — they did not die in vain. (applause) 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. Whether by challenging those who
erect new barriers to the vote, or ensuring that the scales of
justice work equally for all, and the criminal justice system
is not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools
to overcrowded jails, it requires vigilance. (applause) And we’ll suffer
the occasional setback. But we will win these fights. This country has
changed too much. People of goodwill,
regardless of party, are too plentiful
for those with ill will to change history’s currents. (applause) In some ways, though, the securing of civil rights,
voting rights, the eradication of
legalized discrimination — the very significance
of these victories may have obscured
a second goal of the March. For the men and women
who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search
of some abstract ideal. They were there seeking
jobs as well as justice — (applause) — not just
the absence of oppression but the presence of
economic opportunity. (applause) 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? This idea — that one’s liberty
is linked to one’s livelihood; that the pursuit of happiness
requires the dignity of work, the skills to find work,
decent pay, some measure
of material security — this idea was not new. Lincoln himself understood the
Declaration of Independence in such terms — as a promise
that in due time, “the weights should be lifted
from the shoulders of all men, and that all should
have an equal chance.” And Dr. King explained that the
goals of African Americans were identical to working people
of all races: “Decent wages, fair working conditions, livable
housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures,
conditions in which families can grow, have education
for their children, and respect in the community.” 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 — where the goals of 50 years ago
have fallen most short. Yes, there have been examples
of success within black America that would have been
unimaginable a half century ago. But as has already been noted,
black unemployment has remained almost twice as high
as white unemployment, Latino unemployment
close behind. The gap in wealth between races
has not lessened, it’s grown. And as President Clinton
indicated, the position of all
working Americans, regardless of color, has eroded, making the dream Dr. King
described even more elusive. For over a decade, working
Americans of all races have seen their wages
and incomes stagnate, even as corporate profits soar, even as the pay of a
fortunate few explodes. Inequality has steadily
risen over the decades. Upward mobility
has become harder. In too many communities
across this country, in cities and suburbs
and rural hamlets, the shadow of poverty casts
a pall over our youth, their lives a fortress
of substandard schools and diminished prospects,
inadequate health care and perennial violence. And so as we mark
this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that
the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago
was not merely how many blacks could join the ranks
of millionaires. It was whether this country
would admit all people who are willing to work hard regardless
of race into the ranks of a middle-class life. (applause) The test was not,
and never has been, whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider
for a few. It was whether our economic
system provides a fair shot for the many —
for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher
and the Native American veteran. To win that battle,
to answer that call — this remains our great
unfinished business. We shouldn’t fool ourselves. The task will not be easy. Since 1963, the
economy has changed. The twin forces of technology
and global competition have subtracted those jobs
that once provided a foothold into the middle class — reduced the bargaining
power of American workers. And our politics has suffered. Entrenched interests,
those who benefit from an unjust status quo, resisted any government
efforts to give working families a fair deal — marshaling an army of
lobbyists and opinion makers to argue that minimum wage
increases or stronger labor laws or taxes on the wealthy
who could afford it just to fund crumbling schools, that all these things violated
sound economic principles. We’d be told that growing
inequality was a price for a growing economy,
a measure of this free market; that greed was good and
compassion ineffective, and those without
jobs or health care had only themselves to blame. And then, there were those
elected officials who found it useful to practice
the old politics of division, doing their best to convince
middle-class Americans of a great untruth — that government was
somehow itself to blame for their growing
economic insecurity; that distant bureaucrats were
taking their hard-earned dollars to benefit the welfare cheat
or the illegal immigrant. And then, 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. The anguish of assassinations
set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against
police brutality tipped into excuse-making
for criminal behavior. Racial politics
could cut both ways, as the transformative message
of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the
language of recrimination. And what had once been a call
for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to
work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire
for government support — as if we had no agency in
our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse
for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was
reason to give up on yourself. All of that history is
how progress stalled. That’s how hope was diverted. It’s how our country
remained divided. But 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. The March on Washington teaches
us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history; that we are masters
of our fate. But it also teaches us that
the promise of this nation will only be kept
when we work together. We’ll have
to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience
that found expression in this place 50 years ago. And I believe that
spirit is there, that truth force
inside each of us. I see it when
a white mother recognizes her own daughter in
the face of a poor black child. I see it when the black youth
thinks of his own grandfather in the dignified steps
of an elderly white man. It’s there when the native-born
recognizing that striving spirit of the new immigrant; when the
interracial couple connects the pain of a gay couple who
are discriminated against and understands it as their own. That’s where
courage comes from — when we turn
not from each other, or on each other,
but towards one another, and we find that we
do not walk alone. That’s where courage comes from. (applause) And with that courage, we can stand together for
good jobs and just wages. With that courage,
we can stand together for the right to health care
in the richest nation on Earth for every person. (applause) With that courage,
we can stand together for the right of every child, from the corners of Anacostia
to the hills of Appalachia, to get an education
that stirs the mind and captures the spirit, and prepares them for the world
that awaits them. (applause) With that courage,
we can feed the hungry, and house the homeless,
and transform bleak wastelands of poverty into fields
of commerce and promise. America, I know the
road will be long, but I know we can get there. Yes, we will stumble, but
I know we’ll get back up. That’s how a movement happens. That’s how history bends. That’s how when somebody
is faint of heart, somebody else brings
them along and says, come on, we’re marching. (applause) There’s a reason why
so many who marched that day, and in the days
to come, were young — for the young are unconstrained
by habits of fear, unconstrained by
the conventions of what is. They dared to dream differently,
to imagine something better. And I am convinced
that same imagination, the same hunger of purpose
stirs in this generation. We might not face the
same dangers of 1963, but the fierce urgency
of now remains. We may never duplicate
the swelling crowds and dazzling procession
of that day so long ago — no one can match
King’s brilliance — but the same flame
that lit the heart of all who are willing to
take a first step for justice, I know that flame remains. (applause) That tireless teacher
who gets to class early and stays late and dips into
her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that
every child is her charge — she’s marching. (applause) That successful businessman
who doesn’t have to but pays his workers a fair wage
and then offers a shot to a man, maybe an ex-con
who is down on his luck — he’s marching. (applause) The mother who pours
her love into her daughter so that she grows up
with the confidence to walk through the same
door as anybody’s son — she’s marching. (applause) The father who realizes
the most important job he’ll ever have is
raising his boy right, even if he didn’t
have a father — especially if he didn’t
have a father at home — he’s marching. (applause) The battle-scarred veterans
who devote themselves not only to helping their
fellow warriors stand again, and walk again, and run again, but to keep serving their
country when they come home — they are marching. (applause) 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. (applause) And that’s the
lesson of our past. That’s the
promise of tomorrow — that in the face
of impossible odds, people who love their
country can change it. That when millions of Americans
of every race and every region, every faith and every station, can join together in
a spirit of brotherhood, then those mountains
will be made low, and those rough places
will be made plain, and those crooked places, they straighten out
towards grace, and we will vindicate the faith
of those who sacrificed so much and live up to the true meaning
of our creed, as one nation, under God,
indivisible, with liberty and justice
for all. (applause)

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