Obama Encourages Next Generation To Carry On King's Vision

Freedom bells rang out in Washington and across the country on Wednesday, as Americans marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. President Obama, who's often noted his own debt to the civil rights leader, praised the tens of thousands of Americans who marched with Dr. King in 1963. He also challenged a new generation to continue to press for racial and economic justice.

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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. The poignant sound of an historic bell helped ring in the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

MONTAGNE: This bell, heard at the Lincoln Memorial, once rang at the Birmingham church where a bombing in 1963 left four girls dead. It was a sad reminder of a difficult struggle not yet done, on a day mostly devoted to the promise of Martin Luther King's speech "I Have a Dream."

President Obama has often mentioned his own debt to the civil rights leader and yesterday, he delivered his own speech on the National Mall, looking both back and ahead. NPR's Scott Horsley was there.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama knew better than to try to match King's famous address, which he's called one of the few best speeches in American history. Instead, Obama looked out at the Reflecting Pool, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and recalled the less famous people who gathered there half a century ago: seamstresses and students, maids and Pullman porters. Their names aren't recorded in the history books, he said. But they changed history on that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: Government changed, too, Obama said - city councils, Congress; eventually, even the White House.

Rita Hines Brooks was among those who marched on Washington 50 years ago, taking time off from her waitress job in Baltimore to be here. This week, she was back on the National Mall. Her daughter and granddaughter were with her.

RITA HINES BROOKS: It was just inspiring to see all of them who realize the importance of the need to carry on and make sure our voters' rights - is not taken away from us; that Hispanics coming to this country will be given a fair shake, Asian-Americans, American Indians - everyone in this country, to be able to live and to prosper.

HORSLEY: Obama also stressed the need to carry on. While he said it would dishonor King and other civil rights pioneers to dismiss the progress that's been made in the last half-century, he said it would also be wrong to suggest that work is finished.

OBAMA: To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency.

HORSLEY: The Obama administration has promised to be aggressive in defending minority voting rights, after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act this year. The president and attorney general also say they want to address racial inequities in the criminal justice system.

But Obama notes those who marched 50 years ago were also fighting for economic opportunity. Carl Johnson, who came to Washington this week from Arizona, says that's just as important today.

CARL JOHNSON: You cannot build a democratic society if the people aren't secure in their economic being.

HORSLEY: Obama says that's where there's been the least progress in 50 years. African-Americans are still twice as likely to be unemployed as whites, and almost three times as likely to be poor.

The president acknowledged that racial gap yesterday, but he added Americans of all races are struggling in an economy where the rewards are increasingly lopsided.

OBAMA: The test was not, and never has been, whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for the few. It's 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.

HORSLEY: Thus far, however, the administration's made little progress in its efforts to boost the minimum wage, or make it easier for unions to organize workers. Congress has opposed both, but Obama promises to keep trying.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: Obama says the solution is not for Americans to turn on each other, but towards each other, just as those who marched on Washington did 50 years ago.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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