Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, on Sunday dedicated a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall, where nearly 50 years ago the historic march on Washington became a defining moment in the civil-rights movement.
“For this day, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s return to the National Mall,” Obama said.
“In this place, he will stand for all time, among monuments to those who fathered this nation and those who defended it; a black preacher with no official rank or title who somehow gave voice to our deepest dreams and our most lasting ideals, a man who stirred our conscience and thereby helped make our union more perfect.”
Civil-rights advocates have pushed for a memorial on the Mall honoring King for nearly 20 years.
Obama was joined on stage by civil-rights leaders who knew King personally, including Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, who marched with King in Selma, Alabama.
Speaking before a crowd of thousands, in the cadence of a rousing sermon, Obama evoked King’s “I have a dream” speech, given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, to the thousands who took part in the nation’s first large integrated protest march.
The monument was originally to have been dedicated on Aug. 28 of this year, but the ceremony was postponed due to a hurricane.
Obama celebrated the progress in civil rights that has been made since then, but said the work is far from complete. And he drew parallels between the tumultuous, violent political challenges King fought in the 1960s and the polarized partisan divides and economic distress that trouble the country today.
“Because of that hopeful vision, because of Dr. King’s moral imagination, barricades began to fall and bigotry began to fade. New doors of opportunity swung open for an entire generation. Yes, laws changed, but hearts and minds changed, as well,” Obama said.
“Look at the faces here around you, and you see an America that is more fair and more free and more just than the one Dr. King addressed that day. We are right to savor that slow but certain progress--progress that’s expressed itself in a million ways, large and small, across this nation every single day, as people of all colors and creeds live together, and work together, and fight alongside one another, and learn together, and build together, and love one another.”
He reminded his audience that during his life, King was not always considered a unifying figure, but was often viewed as radical and divisive, an agitator and a communist, even attacked by his own people, who felt he was going to fast or too slow, who felt he shouldn’t meddle in issues like the Vietnam War or the rights of union workers.
The words resonate in today’s political landscape as Obama himself is increasingly viewed as a deeply divisive figure.
“I raise all this because nearly 50 years after the March on Washington, our work, Dr. King’s work, is not yet complete,” he said.
“We gather here at a moment of great challenge and great change. In the first decade of this new century, we have been tested by war and by tragedy; by an economic crisis and its aftermath that has left millions out of work, and poverty on the rise, and millions more just struggling to get by. Indeed, even before this crisis struck, we had endured a decade of rising inequality and stagnant wages. In too many troubled neighborhoods across the country, the conditions of our poorest citizens appear little changed from what existed 50 years ago--neighborhoods with underfunded schools and broken-down slums, inadequate health care, constant violence, neighborhoods in which too many young people grow up with little hope and few prospects for the future.”
Obama made direct reference to the divisive policies for which he is constantly under partisan political attack.
“And so, as we think about all the work that we must do--rebuilding an economy that can compete on a global stage, and fixing our schools so that every child--not just some, but every child--gets a world-class education, and making sure that our health care system is affordable and accessible to all, and that our economic system is one in which everybody gets a fair shake and everybody does their fair share, let us not be trapped by what is.”
He referenced King in an appeal to diminish polarized partisan politics--and a clear appeal for his own policies, particularly those aimed at increasing or preserving federal spending on schools and programs to help the poor.
“And so at this moment, when our politics appear so sharply polarized, and faith in our institutions so greatly diminished, we need more than ever to take heed of Dr. King’s teachings. He calls on us to stand in the other person’s shoes; to see through their eyes; to understand their pain. He tells us that we have a duty to fight against poverty, even if we are well off; to care about the child in the decrepit school even if our own children are doing fine; to show compassion toward the immigrant family, with the knowledge that most of us are only a few generations removed from similar hardships.”
And he referenced King’s own vocabulary in an effort to present a vision in which Americans work through tumultuous times and emerge stronger.
“As tough as times may be, I know we will overcome,” Obama said. “I know there are better days ahead. I know this because of the man towering over us. I know this because all he and his generation endured--we are here today in a country that dedicated a monument to that legacy.”