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.

What We're Following See More »
A DARK CLOUD OVER TRUMP?
Snowstorm Could Impact Primary Turnout
2 days ago
THE LATEST

A snowstorm is supposed to hit New Hampshire today and “linger into Primary Tuesday.” GOP consultant Ron Kaufman said lower turnout should help candidates who have spent a lot of time in the state tending to retail politicking. Donald Trump “has acknowledged that he needs to step up his ground-game, and a heavy snowfall could depress his figures relative to more organized candidates.”

Source:
IN CASE OF EMERGENCY
A Shake-Up in the Offing in the Clinton Camp?
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

Anticipating a primary loss in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Hillary and Bill Clinton “are considering staffing and strategy changes” to their campaign. Sources tell Politico that the Clintons are likely to layer over top officials with experienced talent, rather than fire their staff en masse.

Source:
THE LAST ROUND OF NEW HAMPSHIRE POLLS
Trump Is Still Ahead, but Who’s in Second?
1 days ago
THE LATEST

We may not be talking about New Hampshire primary polls for another three-and-a-half years, so here goes:

  • American Research Group’s tracking poll has Donald Trump in the lead with 30% support, followed by Marco Rubio and John Kasich tying for second place at 16%. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders leads Hillary Clinton 53%-41%.
  • The 7 News/UMass Lowell tracking poll has Trump way out front with 34%, followed by Rubio and Ted Cruz with 13% apiece. Among the Democrats, Sanders is in front 56%-40%.
  • A Gravis poll puts Trump ahead with 28%, followed by Kasich with 17% and Rubio with 15%.
IT’S ALL ABOUT SECOND PLACE
CNN Calls the Primary for Sanders and Trump
23 hours ago
THE LATEST

Well that didn’t take long. CNN has already declared Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump the winners of the New Hampshire primary, leaving the rest of the candidates to fight for the scraps. Five minutes later, the Associated Press echoed CNN’s call.

Source:
×