Obama Helps Dedicate Martin Luther King Memorial

Almost 50 years after the March on Washington, President Obama said barricades and bigotry have come down, but the nation still faces severe economic challenges and too many neighborhoods with too little hope. The president spoke at the long-delayed ceremony on Sunday.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Before leaving on that bus tour, the president helped to dedicate a new memorial in Washington. It's in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. NPR's Scott Horsley was there.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It was a glorious blue-sky morning in the nation's capital, as if the heavens were trying to make up for washing out the original dedication back in August. Organizers had hoped to hold the ceremony on the anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, but that was before Hurricane Irene interfered. Yesterday it was bright sunshine that welcomed President Obama, Aretha Franklin, and tens of thousands of others.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: A hurricane may have delayed this day. But this is a day that would not be denied. For this day we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s return to the National Mall.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Precious Lord, take my hand...

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama toured the memorial with the King family, and at their request he placed copies of two of his speeches in a time capsule there. Speaker after speaker stressed, though, they don't want the memorial itself to serve as a mere time capsule frozen in stone. Instead, they hope it will be a catalyst for ongoing social change. King's daughter Bernice drew comparisons between the nonviolent protest of the civil rights era and today's Occupy Wall Street movement.

BERNICE KING: We should never adjust to the one percent controlling more than 40 percent of the wealth. We should never adjust to an unprecedented number of people being unemployed. I can hear my father say: Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.

HORSLEY: Debbie Brown, who was in the crowd, agrees that when it comes to social progress, there's always more work to be done. But Brown also took time yesterday to savor the changes she's already witnessed in her lifetime.

DEBBIE BROWN: When I was a kid, Martin Luther King was marching through the streets of Alabama and Georgia. I remember going to places I couldn't go to as a child because I was black or colored or whatever they want to call it back then. I lived to see a black president and I didn't think I would live to see a black statue in a white area of Washington, D.C., so I'm living to see that. So there are miracles in this world if you just believe.

HORSLEY: Many in the crowd cheered yesterday when footage from Mr. Obama's 2008 election night flashed on giant video screens. For some who supported the president, though, the last three years have been frustrating. Mindful of that, Mr. Obama pointed out that progress in King's day was also halting and incomplete.

OBAMA: First and foremost, let us remember that change has never been quick. Change has never been simple or without controversy. Change depends on persistence. Change requires determination.

HORSLEY: Almost 50 years after the march on Washington, Mr. Obama said barricades and bigotry have come down. But the nation still faces severe economic challenges and too many neighborhoods with too little hope. In combating those challenges, he urged the crowd at the memorial to look beyond polarized politics and try to see their adversaries as King himself did.

OBAMA: He would want us to know we can argue fiercely about the proper size and role of government without questioning each other's love for this country, with the knowledge that in this democracy government is no distant object but is rather an expression of our common commitments to one another. He would call on us to assume the best in each other rather than the worst.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

CHOIR: (Singing) We shall overcome...

HORSLEY: Despite the setbacks in his time, Mr. Obama said, King retained an abiding faith that America could live up to its ideals. The president challenged followers who've been scarred by more recent setbacks not to abandon their faith now. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

CHOIR: (Singing) Oh, deep in my heart, yes, I do believe, we shall overcome some day...

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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