WASHINGTON — Taking stock of progress both made and still to come, Americans of all backgrounds and colors massed on the National Mall on Wednesday to hear President Barack Obama and civil rights pioneers commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the same spot where he gave unforgettable voice to the struggle for racial equality 50 years earlier.
It was a moment rich with history and symbolism: the first black president poised to stand where King first sketched his dream.
Marchers opened the drizzly day by walking the streets of Washington behind a replica of the transit bus that Rosa Parks once rode when she refused to give up her seat to a white man. Midafternoon, the same bell was to ring that once hung in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., before the church was bombed in 1963.
Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were part of the lineup, too, with George W. Bush sending a statement of support. Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker and Jamie Foxx led the celebrity contingent.
Setting a festive tone for the day, civil rights veteran Andrew Young, a former U.N. ambassador and congressman, veteran, sang an anthem of the civil rights movement and urged the crowd to join in as he belted out: “I woke up this morning with my mind on freedom.” He ended his remarks by urging the crowd to “fight on.”
Robby Novak, the young comedian known as Kid President, followed him to the podium and exhorted the crowd to “keep dreaming, keep dreaming.”
King’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, said blacks can rightfully celebrate his father’s life and work, and the election of the first black president, but much more work remains. Even now, he said on NBC’s “Today” show, drawing on his father’s words, “many young people, it seems, are first judged by their color and then the content of their character.”
Large crowds thronged to the Lincoln Memorial, where King, with soaring, rhythmic oratory and a steely countenance, pleaded with Americans to come together to stomp out racism and create a land of opportunity for all.
Slate gray skies and a light drizzle greeted the earliest arrivals for the daylong event.
The scheduled appearance later Wednesday of Obama was certain to embody the fulfilled dreams of hundreds of thousands who rallied there in 1963. Obama has not often talked publicly about racial issues in the time he has been president. He did, however, talk at some length about the challenges he faced as a young black male as he discussed the case of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen-ager killed in a confrontation with neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.
Also joining the day’s events were Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, daughter of Lyndon Johnson, the president who signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a longtime leader in civil rights battles.
Obama considers the 1963 march a “seminal event” and part of his generation’s “formative memory.” A half-century after the march, he said, is a good time to reflect on how far the country has come and how far it still has to go.
In an interview Tuesday on Tom Joyner’s radio show, Obama said he imagines that King “would be amazed in many ways about the progress that we’ve made.” He listed advances such as equal rights before the law, an accessible judicial system, thousands of African-American elected officials, African-American CEOs and the doors the civil rights movement opened for Latinos, women and gays.
“I think he would say it was a glorious thing,” Obama said.
But Obama noted that King’s speech was also about jobs and justice.
“When it comes to the economy, when it comes to inequality, when it comes to wealth, when it comes to the challenges that inner cities experience, he would say that we have not made as much progress as the civil and social progress that we’ve made, and that it’s not enough just to have a black president, it’s not enough just to have a black syndicated radio show host,” the president said.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Brett Zongker contributed to this report.