Obama Calls on Spirit of ‘63 March to Address ‘Unfinished Business’

President Barack Obama delivers remarks during a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 28,2013, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. The president was set to lead civil rights pioneers Wednesday in a ceremony for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech roused the 250,000 people who rallied there decades ago for racial equality. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
Aug. 28, 2013, 2:58 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama on Wed­nes­day hailed the civil-rights pi­on­eers who risked so much in the struggle, us­ing the 50th an­niversary of the epochal March on Wash­ing­ton to cred­it them with his own his­tor­ic elec­tion while out­lining their un­fin­ished agenda of great­er eco­nom­ic se­cur­ity. He also called on today’s gen­er­a­tion of march­ers to “have the cour­age to change.”

“The test was not and nev­er has been wheth­er the doors of op­por­tun­ity are cracked a bit wider for a few,” he said, stand­ing on the steps of the Lin­coln Me­mori­al where Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. stood in 1963 and de­livered his renowned “I Have a Dream” speech. “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 vet­er­ans. To win that battle, to an­swer that call — this re­mains our great un­fin­ished busi­ness.”

The pres­id­ent was the fi­nal speak­er of the day, fol­low­ing to the mi­cro­phone two former pres­id­ents, the chil­dren of oth­er pres­id­ents, am­bas­sad­ors, labor lead­ers, and vet­er­ans of dec­ades of civil-rights battles. The theme of most of the speeches on this rainy, over­cast day was, as Obama sug­ges­ted, the work still to be done, the in­justices still to be righted, the chal­lenges still to be met. That was ex­pec­ted. No vi­brant polit­ic­al move­ment can spend all its time look­ing back­wards, even on a day de­signed to com­mem­or­ate a shin­ing mo­ment in the move­ment half a cen­tury earli­er.

But it would be im­possible not to look back on the battles won when Obama stood un­der the gaze of Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln, peer­ing out at the Re­flect­ing Pool. Even Obama had to pause for a second in his speech to take note of the his­tory he rep­res­ents as an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an twice elec­ted pres­id­ent of a na­tion whose “ori­gin­al sin” was slavery. Pay­ing homage to the civil-rights pi­on­eers of the 1960s, Obama said, “Be­cause they kept march­ing, Amer­ica changed.” He ad­ded, “Be­cause they marched, city coun­cils changed and state le­gis­latures changed, and Con­gress changed.”

As cheers rose from the tens of thou­sands be­fore him, he con­cluded, “And, yes, even­tu­ally the White House changed.”

In­deed, a black pres­id­ent was not on any­one’s list of de­mands when the March on Wash­ing­ton was staged in 1963. They wanted pas­sage of Pres­id­ent Kennedy’s civil-rights bill, de­seg­reg­a­tion of all pub­lic schools, vot­ing rights, fed­er­al train­ing for the un­em­ployed, and an in­crease in the min­im­um wage to $2 an hour. In the week of the march, they lob­bied for the ap­point­ment of the first black cap­tain on the Wash­ing­ton, D.C., po­lice force. They pushed for the right to sit in a steak res­taur­ant on Route 301 in Prince George’s County, Md., whose own­er was re­fus­ing ser­vice to blacks. Their sights were set far be­low the White House.

At the time of the march, there were only five black mem­bers of the House and no black may­or of a ma­jor city. Soon, Wash­ing­ton would have black may­ors and black po­lice chiefs, and Prince George’s County would be ma­jor­ity black. It would be four years after the march be­fore Carl Stokes in Clev­e­land would be­come that first may­or; 26 years be­fore Doug Wilder in Vir­gin­ia would be­come the first post-Re­con­struc­tion black gov­ernor; and 45 years be­fore Obama would win the pres­id­ency.

So this was a day for tak­ing stock of pro­gress even while set­ting the fu­ture agenda. It was, said Del­eg­ate Elean­or Holmes Norton, D-D.C. — a staffer who helped or­gan­ize the 1963 march — “a worthy en­core.” That was es­pe­cially true for Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the only sur­viv­ing speak­er from the ori­gin­al march.

“Some­times,” he said, “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. Come walk in the shoes of those who were at­tacked by po­lice dogs, fire hoses, and night­sticks, ar­res­ted and taken to jail.”

Re­call­ing his first trip to Wash­ing­ton in 1961 — the year Obama was born — he spoke of the Free­dom Rides to al­low blacks to ride on Grey­hound buses. “Over 400 of us were ar­res­ted and jailed in Mis­sis­sippi dur­ing the Free­dom Rides. A bus was set on fire in An­nis­ton, Alabama. We were beaten and ar­res­ted and jailed,” Lewis said. “But we helped bring an end to se­greg­a­tion in pub­lic trans­port­a­tion.”

In his speech, the pres­id­ent re­cog­nized the sac­ri­fices of Lewis’s gen­er­a­tion. “Amer­ica changed for you and me,” he said. “But,” he ad­ded, “we would dis­hon­or those her­oes as well to sug­gest that the work of this na­tion is some­how com­plete.” The march­ers of 1963 were here for “jobs as well as justice.” And that prom­ise has not been met, he noted, with black un­em­ploy­ment still double white job­less­ness.

To meet that chal­lenge, Obama sug­ges­ted that a dys­func­tion­al gov­ern­ment will have to im­prove. “Our polit­ics has suffered,” he said, blam­ing “en­trenched in­terests” and elec­ted of­fi­cials “who found it use­ful to prac­tice the old polit­ics of di­vi­sion, do­ing their best to con­vince middle-class Amer­ic­ans of a great un­truth, that gov­ern­ment was some­how it­self to blame for their grow­ing eco­nom­ic in­sec­ur­ity.”

He said the coun­try faces “a choice” between “our cur­rent path in which the gears of this great demo­cracy grind to a halt” or a re­turn to the ideal­ism of those who as­sembled here in 1963. “We’ll have to re­ignite the em­bers of em­pathy and fel­low feel­ing, the co­ali­tion of con­science that found ex­pres­sion in this place 50 years ago.”

Obama’s re­marks fol­lowed short­er speeches by Pres­id­ents Carter and Clin­ton; all liv­ing former pres­id­ents were in­vited to speak, but George H.W. Bush could not travel be­cause of his health and George W. Bush is re­cov­er­ing from sur­gery.

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