March Speakers Talk Of Progress, Remaining Inequalities

Wednesday, on the same stretch of the National Mall where the Civil Rights Marchers of 1963 listened to the Reverend Martin Luther King, a far smaller crowd assembled to celebrate the Fiftieth Anniversary of that landmark moment in the struggle for civil rights.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN")

SIEGEL: Today, on the same stretch of the National Mall where the civil rights marchers of 1963 listened to the Reverend Martin Luther King, a far smaller crowd assembled to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that landmark moment in the struggle for civil rights.

From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, trumpeter Geraldo Marshall summoned the proceedings to order at 11. And for the next four-and-a-half hours, the crowd heard from three presidents - Carter, Clinton and Obama -and from advocates for member groups of the civil rights coalition: African-Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities, Asian and Pacific Islanders, American Indians.

They heard from the leaders of labor unions and of the nation's best-known civil rights groups. And they also heard from veterans of the movement who marched to the nation's capital 50 years ago today. One of those was former U.N. Ambassador and former Mayor of Atlanta and member of Congress Andrew Young.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ANDREW YOUNG: I don't know about you, but (singing) I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom. I woke up this morning with my mind - come on, help me - stayed on freedom.

SIEGEL: Fifty years ago, Andrew Young was a pastor working with Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

YOUNG: Fifty years later, we're still here dealing with all kinds of problems, and so we're not here to claim any victory. We're here to simply say that the struggle continues.

SIEGEL: Throughout the day, speakers remarked on the progress made since the march of 1963 and on equalities that remain. Several spoke of voting rights, of the Supreme Court's recent rejection of part of the Voting Rights Act and of some states' changes to voting laws that require voter ID. This was not a bipartisan event. If there were any Republicans taking part, they didn't identify themselves as such.

Democratic Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were represented by their daughters: Caroline Kennedy, who's President Obama's nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Japan, and Lynda Bird Johnson Robb. She recalled LBJ's pride in signing the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

LYNDA BIRD JOHNSON ROBB: In Daddy's last year in the White House, signing the third civil rights bill, he wrote: I do not exaggerate when I say that the proudest moments of my presidency have been times such as this when I have signed into law the promises of a century.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAZING GRACE")

LEANN RIMES: (Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.

SIEGEL: The crowd on the National Mall heard from several celebrities: LeAnn Rimes, who sang, also Jamie Foxx, basketball great Bill Russell, Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, among others. But no one's stardom was brighter than that of Georgia Congressman John Lewis. Fifty years ago, he was the youngest speaker at the Lincoln Memorial, the 23-year-old leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Today, he is a 14-term member of the House of Representatives.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS: Sometime I hear people saying, nothing has changed. But for someone to grow up the way I grew up in the cotton fields of Alabama to now be serving in the United States Congress makes me want to tell them: Come and walk in my shoes.

SIEGEL: And the day's final speaker, President Obama, followed Martin Luther King's children to the microphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL TOLLING)

SIEGEL: With the program running behind schedule, he spoke after a celebratory ringing of church bells around 3 p.m. That was the time of day when Dr. King spoke. The ringing was led from the memorial steps. President Obama said in his speech that to say nothing has changed over 50 years dishonors the heroes of the civil rights movement. But the president also said that not to continue to fight for equality also dishonors their memory, and he spoke of facing the challenge today of growing economic inequality.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

SIEGEL: And so, often in the rain, without any soaring oratory to match that of Dr. King, but with the participation of an African-American president, the marchers of 2013 concluded this 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.

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