By Justin Sink - 08/28/13 10:00 AM EDT
President Obama on Wednesday will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Obama, the nation’s first black president, will discuss the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I have a Dream” speech as the nation grapples with questions about how far it has come since King’s era.
In a radio interview earlier this week, Obama said he would look to “remind people that the work is still out there for us to do, and that we honor his speech but also, more importantly in many ways, the organization of the ordinary people who came out for that speech.”
White House adviser and Obama confidant Valerie Jarrett told Time that the president sees himself as “on the shoulders of those who came before him,” and the speech as an opportunity to propel the next generation toward action.
“Each generation has an obligation to pick up the baton,” Jarrett says. “We want young people to feel a sense of responsibility to take that baton and run with it.”
Obama has generally been reticent to discuss race, though he broke with that precedent memorably earlier this summer in an appearance at the White House press briefing where he discussed the George Zimmerman verdict.
Zimmerman’s July acquittal in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, serves as one of the backdrops of Obama’s speech.
The verdict roiled the nation, with many figures expressing disappointment a jury could find that he acted in self-defense, and questioning what it meant for racial justice.
Martin Luther King III, in an interview with The Hill, said it proved more work needed to be done to fulfill his father’s dream.
“He was the victim, and yet there seems to not be any justice,” he said.
The political right has argued that the charges against Zimmerman were trumped up, and that there is a double standard in the way the media and Obama have treated the cases of Martin and Christopher Lane, a white baseball player from Australia who was allegedly killed last week by three Oklahoma teenagers — two of them black.
The entire discussion, along with a separate debate about voting rights, has raised expectations ahead of Obama’s remarks.
Civil rights leaders have warned that a wave of new voter ID laws — some of which the Obama administration is expected to challenge in court — passed in the aftermath of a Supreme Court decision striking down crucial provisions of the Voting Rights Act could set the country back.
Speaking to college students last week in upstate New York, Obama said it was obvious the country has made enormous strides on the issue of race.
Yet he also warned of complacency and selfishness as minorities continue to struggle with a “legacy of discrimination.”
The five-hour ceremony, which takes place in the shadow of the Obama administration’s preparations for a military strike on Syria, begins at 11 a.m.
Obama will speak shortly after 3:00 p.m., headlining a day that will feature two other presidents — Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
No Republican lawmakers are expected to attend Wednesday’s events, and some black conservatives have expressed irritation with the liberal flavor of the events.
The National Action Network led by Rev. Al Sharpton organized a separate march and rally on Saturday that attracted a litany of Democratic speakers.
The Republican Party held a lunch on Monday to honor the anniversary, while House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) wrote an op-ed for Yahoo News on Tuesday arguing that “we should all rededicate ourselves to ensuring equality for every American and working together with common purpose to ensure a better future for our children.”
Obama, for his part, hosted black leaders throughout the week at the White House, including a meeting with faith leaders on Monday to discuss the implementation of ObamaCare and a discussion with mayors on gun violence Tuesday.
Later in the day, Obama and the first lady held a reception for civil rights leaders in the East Room.
The president indicated on Monday that he understands the high expectations for the moment.
“Let me just say for the record right now, it won’t be as good as the speech 50 years ago,” Obama said Monday. “I just want to get that out there early.”