TRANSCRIPT: Bill Clinton’s speech on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington

President Bill Clinton commemorates Dr. King's "dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. (The Washington Post)
August 28, 2013

Former President Bill Clinton delivered the following remarks at the “Let Freedome Ring” ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 2013 at the Lincoln Memorial.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Thank you.

Mr. President, Mrs. Obama, President Carter, Vice President Biden, Dr. Biden, I want to thank my great friend Reverend Bernice King and the King family for inviting me to be a part of this 50th observation of one of the most important days in American history.

Dr. King and A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis and Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Height, Myrlie Evers, Daisy Bates and all the others who led this massive march knew what they were doing on this hallowed ground.

In the shadow of Lincoln’s statute, the burning memory of the fact that he gave his life to preserve the Union and end slavery, Martin Luther King urged his crowd not to drink from the cup of bitterness but to reach across the racial divide because, he said, we cannot walk alone. Their destiny is tied up with our destiny. Their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

He urged the victims of racial violence to meet white Americans with an outstretched hand, not a clenched fist, and, in so doing, to prove the redeeming power of unearned suffering. And then he dreamed of an America where all citizens would sit together at the table of brotherhood, where little white boys and girls and little black boys and girls would hold hands across the color line, where his own children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

This march and that speech changed America. They opened minds, they melted hearts and they moved millions, including a 17-year-old boy watching alone in his home in Arkansas. (Applause.) It was an empowering moment, but also an empowered moment. As the great chronicler of those years, Taylor Branch, wrote: The movement here gained the force to open, quote, “the stubborn gates of freedom,” and out flowed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, immigration reform, Medicare, Medicaid, open housing.

It is well to remember that the leaders and the foot soldiers here were both idealists and tough realists; they had to be. It was a violent time. Just three months later, we lost President Kennedy and we thank God that President Johnson came in and fought for all those issues I just mentioned. (Applause.) Just five years later, we lost Senator Kennedy. And in between there was the carnage of the fight for jobs, freedom and equality. Just 18 days after this march, four little children were killed in the Birmingham church bombinng. Then there were the Ku Klux Klan murders, the Mississippi lynching and a dozen others until in 1968 Dr. King himself was martyred, still marching for jobs and freedom.

What a debt we owe to those people who came here 50 years ago. (Cheers, applause.) The martyrs played it all for a dream, a dream, as John Lewis said, that millions have now actually lived.

So how are we going to repay the debt? Dr. King’s dream of interdependence, his prescription of wholehearted cooperation across racial lines -- they ring as true today as they did 50 years ago. Oh, yes, we face terrible political gridlock now. Read a little history; it’s nothing new. Yes, there remain racial inequalities in employment, income, health, wealth, incarceration, and in the victims and perpetrators of violent crime. But we don’t face beatings, lynchings and shootings for our political beliefs anymore. And I would respectfully suggest that Martin Luther King did not live and die to hear his heirs whine about political gridlock. It is time to stop complaining and put our shoulders against the stubborn gates holding the American people back. (Cheers, applause.)

We cannot be disheartened by the forces of resistance to building a modern economy of good jobs and rising incomes or to rebuilding our education system to give our children a common core of knowledge necessary to ensure success or to give Americans of all ages access to affordable college and training programs. And we thank the president for his efforts in those regards. (Applause.)

We cannot relax in our efforts to implement health care reform in a way that ends discrimination against those with pre-existing conditions -- one of which is inadequate income to pay for rising health care -- (applause) -- a health care reform that will lower costs and lengthen lives; nor can we stop investing in science and technology to train our young people of all races for the jobs of tomorrow; and to act on what we learn about our bodies, our businesses and our climate. We must push open those stubborn gates.

We cannot be discouraged by a Supreme Court decision that said we don’t need this critical provision of the Voting Rights Act because, look at the states, it made it harder for African Americans and Hispanics and students and the elderly and the infirm and poor working folks to vote. What do you know; they showed up, stood in line for hours and voted anyway. So, obviously we don’t need any kind of law. (Applause.)

But a great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon. (Cheers, applause.) We must open those stubborn gates.

And let us not forget that while racial divides persist and must not be denied, the whole American landscape is littered with the lost dreams and dashed hopes of people of all races. And the great irony of the current moment is that the future has never brimmed with more possibilities. It has never burned brighter in what we could become if we push open those stubborn gates and if we do it together.

The choice remains as it was on that distant summer day 50 years ago: cooperate and thrive or fight with each other and fall behind. We should all thank God for Dr. King and John Lewis and all those who gave us a dream to guide us, a dream they paid for, like our founders, with their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor. (Cheers, applause.) And we thank them for reminding us that America is always becoming, always on a journey. And we all, every single citizen among us, have to run our length.

God bless them, and God bless America. (Cheers, applause.)

Transcript courtesy of Federal News Service.

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