President Obama’s Full ‘March on Washington’ Remarks

The president spoke on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

President Obama speaks at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
Aug. 28, 2013, 11:35 a.m.

To the King fam­ily, who have sac­ri­ficed and in­spired so much; to Pres­id­ent Clin­ton; Pres­id­ent Carter; Vice Pres­id­ent Biden and Jill; fel­low Amer­ic­ans.

Five dec­ades ago today, Amer­ic­ans came to this honored place to lay claim to a prom­ise made at our found­ing: “We hold these truths to be self-evid­ent, that all men are cre­ated equal, that they are en­dowed by their Cre­at­or with cer­tain un­ali­en­able rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pur­suit of Hap­pi­ness.”

In 1963, al­most 200 years after those words were set to pa­per, a full cen­tury after a great war was fought and eman­cip­a­tion pro­claimed, that prom­ise — those truths — re­mained un­met. And so they came by the thou­sands from every corner of our coun­try, men and wo­men, young and old, blacks who longed for free­dom and whites who could no longer ac­cept free­dom for them­selves while wit­ness­ing the sub­jug­a­tion of oth­ers.

Across the land, con­greg­a­tions sent them off with food and with pray­er. In the middle of the night, en­tire blocks of Har­lem came out to wish them well. With the few dol­lars they scrimped from their labor, some bought tick­ets and boarded buses, even if they couldn’t al­ways sit where they wanted to sit. Those with less money hitch­hiked or walked. They were seam­stresses and steel­work­ers, stu­dents and teach­ers, maids and Pull­man port­ers. They shared simple meals and bunked to­geth­er on floors. And then, on a hot sum­mer day, they as­sembled here, in our na­tion’s cap­it­al, un­der the shad­ow of the Great Eman­cip­at­or — to of­fer testi­mony of in­justice, to pe­ti­tion their gov­ern­ment for re­dress, and to awaken Amer­ica’s long-slum­ber­ing con­science.

We rightly and best re­mem­ber Dr. King’s soar­ing oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of mil­lions; how he offered a sal­va­tion path for op­pressed and op­press­ors alike. His words be­long to the ages, pos­sess­ing a power and proph­ecy un­matched in our time.

But we would do well to re­call that day it­self also be­longed to those or­din­ary people whose names nev­er ap­peared in the his­tory books, nev­er got on TV. Many had gone to se­greg­ated schools and sat at se­greg­ated lunch coun­ters. They lived in towns where they couldn’t vote and cit­ies where their votes didn’t mat­ter. They were couples in love who couldn’t marry, sol­diers who fought for free­dom abroad that they found denied to them at home. They had seen loved ones beaten, and chil­dren fire-hosed, and they had every reas­on to lash out in an­ger, or resign them­selves to a bit­ter fate.

And yet they chose a dif­fer­ent path. In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tor­ment­ors. In the face of vi­ol­ence, they stood up and sat in, with the mor­al force of non­vi­ol­ence. Will­ingly, they went to jail to protest un­just laws, their cells swell­ing with the sound of free­dom songs. A life­time of in­dig­nit­ies had taught them that no man can take away the dig­nity and grace that God grants us. They had learned through hard ex­per­i­ence what Fre­d­er­ick Dou­glass once taught — that free­dom is not giv­en, it must be won, through struggle and dis­cip­line, per­sist­ence and faith.

That was the spir­it they brought here that day. That was the spir­it young people like John Lewis brought to that day. That was the spir­it that they car­ried with them, like a torch, back to their cit­ies and their neigh­bor­hoods. That steady flame of con­science and cour­age that would sus­tain them through the cam­paigns to come — through boy­cotts and voter re­gis­tra­tion drives and smal­ler marches far from the spot­light; through the loss of four little girls in Birm­ing­ham, and the carnage of the Ed­mund Pettus Bridge, and the agony of Dal­las and Cali­for­nia and Mem­ph­is. Through set­backs and heart­breaks and gnaw­ing doubt, that flame of justice flickered; it nev­er died.

And be­cause they kept march­ing, Amer­ica changed. Be­cause they marched, a Civil Rights law was passed. 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. Be­cause they marched, city coun­cils changed and state le­gis­latures changed, and Con­gress changed, and, yes, even­tu­ally, the White House changed. 

Be­cause they marched, Amer­ica be­came more free and more fair — not just for Afric­an Amer­ic­ans, but for wo­men and Lati­nos, Asi­ans and Nat­ive Amer­ic­ans; for Cath­ol­ics, Jews, and Muslims; for gays, for Amer­ic­ans with a dis­ab­il­ity. Amer­ica changed for you and for me. and the en­tire world drew strength from that ex­ample, wheth­er the young people who watched from the oth­er side of an Iron Cur­tain and would even­tu­ally tear down that wall, or the young people in­side South Africa who would even­tu­ally end the scourge of apartheid.

Those are the vic­tor­ies they won, with iron wills and hope in their hearts. That is the trans­form­a­tion that they wrought, with each step of their well-worn shoes. That’s the debt that I and mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans owe those maids, those laborers, those port­ers, those sec­ret­ar­ies; folks who could have run a com­pany maybe if they had ever had a chance; those white stu­dents who put them­selves in harm’s way, even though they didn’t have; those Ja­pan­ese Amer­ic­ans who re­called their own in­tern­ment; those Jew­ish Amer­ic­ans who had sur­vived the Holo­caust; people who could have giv­en up and giv­en in, but kept on keep­ing on, know­ing that “weep­ing may en­dure for a night, but joy cometh in the morn­ing.”

On the bat­tle­field of justice, men and wo­men without rank or wealth or title or fame would lib­er­ate us all in ways that our chil­dren now take for gran­ted, as people of all col­ors and creeds live to­geth­er and learn to­geth­er and walk to­geth­er, and fight along­side one an­oth­er, and love one an­oth­er, and judge one an­oth­er by the con­tent of our char­ac­ter in this greatest na­tion on Earth.

To dis­miss the mag­nitude of this pro­gress — to sug­gest, as some some­times do, that little has changed — that dis­hon­ors the cour­age and the sac­ri­fice of those who paid the price to march in those years. (Ap­plause.)  Medgar Evers, James Chaney, An­drew Good­man, Mi­chael Schwern­er, Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. — they did not die in vain. Their vic­tory was great. 

But we would dis­hon­or those her­oes as well to sug­gest that the work of this na­tion is some­how com­plete. The arc of the mor­al uni­verse may bend to­wards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own. To se­cure the gains this coun­try has made re­quires con­stant vi­gil­ance, not com­pla­cency. Wheth­er by chal­len­ging those who erect new bar­ri­ers to the vote, or en­sur­ing that the scales of justice work equally for all, and the crim­in­al justice sys­tem is not simply a pipeline from un­der­fun­ded schools to over­crowded jails, it re­quires vi­gil­ance. 

And we’ll suf­fer the oc­ca­sion­al set­back. But we will win these fights. This coun­try has changed too much. People of good­will, re­gard­less of party, are too plen­ti­ful for those with ill will to change his­tory’s cur­rents.

In some ways, though, the se­cur­ing of civil rights, vot­ing rights, the erad­ic­a­tion of leg­al­ized dis­crim­in­a­tion — the very sig­ni­fic­ance of these vic­tor­ies may have ob­scured a second goal of the March. For the men and wo­men who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some ab­stract ideal. They were there seek­ing jobs as well as justice — not just the ab­sence of op­pres­sion but the pres­ence of eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity. 

For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an in­teg­rated lunch counter if he can’t af­ford the meal?  This idea — that one’s liberty is linked to one’s live­li­hood; that the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness re­quires the dig­nity of work, the skills to find work, de­cent pay, some meas­ure of ma­ter­i­al se­cur­ity — this idea was not new. Lin­coln him­self un­der­stood the De­clar­a­tion of In­de­pend­ence in such terms — as a prom­ise that in due time, “the weights should be lif­ted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”  

And Dr. King ex­plained that the goals of Afric­an Amer­ic­ans were identic­al to work­ing people of all races:  “De­cent wages, fair work­ing con­di­tions, liv­able hous­ing, old-age se­cur­ity, health and wel­fare meas­ures, con­di­tions in which fam­il­ies can grow, have edu­ca­tion for their chil­dren, and re­spect in the com­munity.”

What King was de­scrib­ing has been the dream of every Amer­ic­an. It’s what’s lured for cen­tur­ies new ar­rivals to our shores. And it’s along this second di­men­sion — of eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity, the chance through hon­est toil to ad­vance one’s sta­tion in life — where the goals of 50 years ago have fallen most short. 

Yes, there have been ex­amples of suc­cess with­in black Amer­ica that would have been un­ima­gin­able a half cen­tury ago. But as has already been noted, black un­em­ploy­ment has re­mained al­most twice as high as white un­em­ploy­ment, Latino un­em­ploy­ment close be­hind. The gap in wealth between races has not lessened, it’s grown. And as Pres­id­ent Clin­ton in­dic­ated, the po­s­i­tion of all work­ing Amer­ic­ans, re­gard­less of col­or, has eroded, mak­ing the dream Dr. King de­scribed even more elu­sive. 

For over a dec­ade, work­ing Amer­ic­ans of all races have seen their wages and in­comes stag­nate, even as cor­por­ate profits soar, even as the pay of a for­tu­nate few ex­plodes. In­equal­ity has stead­ily ris­en over the dec­ades. Up­ward mo­bil­ity has be­come harder. In too many com­munit­ies across this coun­try, in cit­ies and sub­urbs and rur­al ham­lets, the shad­ow of poverty casts a pall over our youth, their lives a fort­ress of sub­stand­ard schools and di­min­ished pro­spects, in­ad­equate health care and per­en­ni­al vi­ol­ence. 

And so as we mark this an­niversary, we must re­mind ourselves that the meas­ure of pro­gress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks could join the ranks of mil­lion­aires. It was wheth­er this coun­try would ad­mit all people who are will­ing to work hard re­gard­less of race in­to the ranks of a middle-class life.

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. 

We shouldn’t fool ourselves. The task will not be easy. Since 1963, the eco­nomy has changed. The twin forces of tech­no­logy and glob­al com­pet­i­tion have sub­trac­ted those jobs that once provided a foothold in­to the middle class — re­duced the bar­gain­ing power of Amer­ic­an work­ers. And our polit­ics has suffered. En­trenched in­terests, those who be­ne­fit from an un­just status quo, res­isted any gov­ern­ment ef­forts to give work­ing fam­il­ies a fair deal — mar­shal­ing an army of lob­by­ists and opin­ion makers to ar­gue that min­im­um wage in­creases or stronger labor laws or taxes on the wealthy who could af­ford it just to fund crum­bling schools, that all these things vi­ol­ated sound eco­nom­ic prin­ciples. We’d be told that grow­ing in­equal­ity was a price for a grow­ing eco­nomy, a meas­ure of this free mar­ket; that greed was good and com­pas­sion in­ef­fect­ive, and those without jobs or health care had only them­selves to blame.

And then, there were those 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; that dis­tant bur­eau­crats were tak­ing their hard-earned dol­lars to be­ne­fit the wel­fare cheat or the il­leg­al im­mig­rant.

And then, if we’re hon­est with ourselves, we’ll ad­mit that dur­ing the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claim­ing to push for change lost our way. The an­guish of as­sas­sin­a­tions set off self-de­feat­ing ri­ots. Le­git­im­ate griev­ances against po­lice bru­tal­ity tipped in­to ex­cuse-mak­ing for crim­in­al be­ha­vi­or. Ra­cial polit­ics could cut both ways, as the trans­form­at­ive mes­sage of unity and broth­er­hood was drowned out by the lan­guage of re­crim­in­a­tion. And what had once been a call for equal­ity of op­por­tun­ity, the chance for all Amer­ic­ans to work hard and get ahead was too of­ten framed as a mere de­sire for gov­ern­ment sup­port — as if we had no agency in our own lib­er­a­tion, as if poverty was an ex­cuse for not rais­ing your child, and the bigotry of oth­ers was reas­on to give up on your­self.

All of that his­tory is how pro­gress stalled. That’s how hope was di­ver­ted. It’s how our coun­try re­mained di­vided. But the good news is, just as was true in 1963, we now have a choice. We can con­tin­ue down our cur­rent path, in which the gears of this great demo­cracy grind to a halt and our chil­dren ac­cept a life of lower ex­pect­a­tions; where polit­ics is a zero-sum game where a few do very well while strug­gling fam­il­ies of every race fight over a shrink­ing eco­nom­ic pie — that’s one path. Or we can have the cour­age to change. 

The March on Wash­ing­ton teaches us that we are not trapped by the mis­takes of his­tory; that we are mas­ters of our fate. But it also teaches us that the prom­ise of this na­tion will only be kept when we work to­geth­er. 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. 

And I be­lieve that spir­it is there, that truth force in­side each of us. I see it when a white moth­er re­cog­nizes her own daugh­ter in the face of a poor black child. I see it when the black youth thinks of his own grand­fath­er in the dig­ni­fied steps of an eld­erly white man. It’s there when the nat­ive-born re­cog­niz­ing that striv­ing spir­it of the new im­mig­rant; when the in­ter­ra­cial couple con­nects the pain of a gay couple who are dis­crim­in­ated against and un­der­stands it as their own. 

That’s where cour­age comes from — when we turn not from each oth­er, or on each oth­er, but to­wards one an­oth­er, and we find that we do not walk alone. That’s where cour­age comes from.

And with that cour­age, we can stand to­geth­er for good jobs and just wages. With that cour­age, we can stand to­geth­er for the right to health care in the richest na­tion on Earth for every per­son. With that cour­age, we can stand to­geth­er for the right of every child, from the corners of Anacos­tia to the hills of Ap­palachia, to get an edu­ca­tion that stirs the mind and cap­tures the spir­it, and pre­pares them for the world that awaits them.

With that cour­age, we can feed the hungry, and house the home­less, and trans­form bleak waste­lands of poverty in­to fields of com­merce and prom­ise.

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. 

There’s a reas­on why so many who marched that day, and in the days to come, were young — for the young are un­con­strained by habits of fear, un­con­strained by the con­ven­tions of what is. They dared to dream dif­fer­ently, to ima­gine something bet­ter. And I am con­vinced that same ima­gin­a­tion, the same hun­ger of pur­pose stirs in this gen­er­a­tion.

We might not face the same dangers of 1963, but the fierce ur­gency of now re­mains. We may nev­er du­plic­ate the swell­ing crowds and dazzling pro­ces­sion of that day so long ago — no one can match King’s bril­liance — but the same flame that lit the heart of all who are will­ing to take a first step for justice, I know that flame re­mains. 

That tire­less teach­er who gets to class early and stays late and dips in­to her own pock­et to buy sup­plies be­cause she be­lieves that every child is her charge — she’s march­ing.

That suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man who doesn’t have to but pays his work­ers a fair wage and then of­fers a shot to a man, maybe an ex-con who is down on his luck — he’s march­ing.

The moth­er who pours her love in­to her daugh­ter so that she grows up with the con­fid­ence to walk through the same door as any­body’s son — she’s march­ing.

The fath­er who real­izes the most im­port­ant job he’ll ever have is rais­ing his boy right, even if he didn’t have a fath­er — es­pe­cially if he didn’t have a fath­er at home — he’s march­ing.

The battle-scarred vet­er­ans who de­vote them­selves not only to help­ing their fel­low war­ri­ors stand again, and walk again, and run again, but to keep serving their coun­try when they come home — they are march­ing.

Every­one who real­izes what those glor­i­ous pat­ri­ots knew on that day — that change does not come from Wash­ing­ton, but to Wash­ing­ton; that change has al­ways been built on our will­ing­ness, We The People, to take on the mantle of cit­izen­ship — you are march­ing.

And that’s the les­son of our past. That’s the prom­ise of to­mor­row — that in the face of im­possible odds, people who love their coun­try can change it. That when mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans of every race and every re­gion, every faith and every sta­tion, can join to­geth­er in a spir­it of broth­er­hood, then those moun­tains will be made low, and those rough places will be made plain, and those crooked places, they straight­en out to­wards grace, and we will vin­dic­ate the faith of those who sac­ri­ficed so much and live up to the true mean­ing of our creed, as one na­tion, un­der God, in­di­vis­ible, with liberty and justice for all.

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