President Obama declared Wednesday that the “great unfinished business” of the civil rights era was providing economic equality and opportunity to all Americans. [WATCH VIDEO]
Speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years to the date of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Obama argued leaders must fight for “not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity.”
“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,” Obama told a massive crowd gathered on a rainy National Mall. “It was whether this country would admit all people willing to work hard regardless of race into the ranks of a middle class life.”
The president's remarks were sweeping, but rarely personal, instead focusing broadly on familiar themes: economic opportunity, the power of community and the promise of the American Dream.
His decision to frame his discussion in terms of economic equality for all stood in contrast with some of the afternoon’s speakers, who cited a recent Supreme Court decision gutting a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and the verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial as evidence that the struggle to progress beyond the nation’s history of racial discrimination persisted.
Obama paid deference to the controversies, declaring that securing the gains of civil rights leaders “requires constant vigilance, not complacency.”
“Whether it's 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,” Obama said. “It requires vigilance.”
But he depicted perceived inequality in the American justice system as part of the broader struggle for an economy that offered all a chance to succeed.
“In too many communities across this country, in cities and suburbs, the shadow of poverty casts over our youth, their lives a fortress of substandard schools and diminished prospects, inadequate health care and perennial violence,” Obama said.
Others on Wednesday were more willing to frame the president’s political agenda within the legacy of the civil rights movement. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said that the modern "calling of conscience to action" included increasing the minimum wage and legalizing gay marriage.
Former President Clinton bemoaned congressional gridlock and said the president’s signature healthcare law and gun control efforts legacies of the push to end discrimination.
“I would respectfully suggest that Martin Luther King did not live and die to hear his heirs whine about political gridlock,” Clinton said. “It is time to stop complaining and put our shoulders against the stubborn gates holding the American people back.”
A third Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, also addressed the crowd from the Lincoln Memorial. No Republicans attended the event, which at times looked similar to a day at last year’s National Democratic Convention.
Movie stars Jamie Foxx and Forest Whittaker addressed the crowd, as did Oprah Winfrey, Caroline Kennedy, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Most speakers were given just a few minutes to address the crowd.
Obama at one point in his address acknowledged that there were times that “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 drown out by the language of recrimination,” he said.
But, Obama said, ordinary citizens could drive change as revolutionary as that seen a half-century ago if they were “willing to take a first step for justice.”
“Change does not come from Washington but to Washington,” he said, again referencing his historic 2008 campaign.
— This story was published at 3:42 and was updated at 4:42 p.m.