Economic inequality is our great unfinished business, says Obama
US president marks 50 years since King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech
US president Barack Obama speaks during a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Junior’s “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Photograph: Jason Reed/Reuters
US president Barack Obama used the 50th anniversary commemoration of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech to highlight economic inequality in US society, calling on Americans to complete this “great unfinished business” of the civil rights era.
Adopting the rhetorical tones of an inaugural address rather the policy objectives of a state of the union speech, Obama called for unity of purpose to match the passion of King’s movement a half-century ago and to fulfill King’s dream.
Those “who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract ideal. They were seeking jobs as well as justice,” Mr Obama said at the Lincoln Memorial where King electrified 250,000 people 50 years ago and inspired a national movement.
“We will have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling… that found expression in this place 50 years ago,” America’s first black president told an audience on a rain-soaked Washington.
“That’s where courage comes from - when we turn not from each other or on each other, but towards one another.
“With that courage, we can stand together for good jobs and just wages,” he said.
The president said that “in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.”
Mr Obama, himself a powerful orator like King, spoke about the power of the civil rights leader’s famous address, a speech the president described as among the top five greatest speeches in American history.
“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,” he said.
“His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time.”
Mr Obama paid tribute to the civil rights movement King led and the changes that they brought about in American society, from opportunities in education to voting rights laws.
“Through setbacks and heartbreaks and gnawing doubt, that flame of justice flickered and never died. And because they kept marching, America changed,” he said.
The president said that “because they kept marching, eventually the White House changed,” referring to his own historic election as president to applause from the crowd gathered on the National Mall.
Mr Obama attempted to show that the movement King led was not just about bringing equality for African-Americans but for all Americans.
He described the current high rates of unemployment and wealth disparities between the races as “our great unfinished business” saying that inequality has steadily risen over the decades.
Among the speakers at the commemoration were former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and members of King’s family.
Mr Clinton recalled how King’s speech affected him personally.
“This march, and that speech, changed America. They opened minds, they melted hearts and they moved millions including a 17-year-old boy watching in his home alone in Arkansas,” he said.
Complaining about the lack of political consensus on Capitol Hill, the former president said that he did not believe that King lived and died to hear people complain about “gridlock” in Congress.
Criticising the recent Supreme Court overturning parts of the 1965 voting rights act that protected minority voters, Mr Clinton berated those who didn’t believe that a law was required to protect electoral rights.
“A great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon,” he said.
Civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton called for an end to modern discriminatory laws, describing them as the laws of “James Crow Jr Esquire,” a successor to pre-civil rights era Jim Crow racist laws.
Celebrities who spoke at the event included actors Oprah Winfrey, Jamie Foxx and Forrest Whitaker. Foxx called on people to “renew the dream.”