Soon she was sharing it with a dozen racially diverse strangers, all crowding around to hear a bit of history they would have otherwise missed.
“This was the country he believed was possible,” O’Neal said of her father, who was once denied an Army base haircut because of his skin color. “He was never bitter, never wanted me to be embittered. Seeing the people out here today, and the person speaking up there, he would have been amazed.”
The relic of O’Neal’s radio carried the generation-spanning message Obama sought to deliver on the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s demand for racial equality.
But in this distant area of the Mall, where those without tickets huddled in the rain, O’Neal and others also heard their own messages — of hope, of celebration, of frustration — based on their expectations and experience.
The range of reactions was reflected by the nation’s first black president, who celebrated successes while also acknowledging King’s unfulfilled dream.
“The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own,” he told the audience. “To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency.”
Obama, 2 years old at the time of King’s speech in 1963, said the work would involve “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.”
That part of Obama's message spoke to Jackie Hawkins, sitting beneath a tree for cover on the same patch of the Mall as O’Neal and her radio listeners. Hawkins was attempting to keep dry a pair of homemade signs. “The Dream Without Work Is Dead,” read one; “Let My People ‘Go’ From U.S. Prisons and Jails,” read the other.
“This is a war against black and brown people,” Hawkins said of drug laws that disproportionately affect minorities. “It is time for him to declare the drug war over. We have suffered enough.”
Next to her, Paula Watson, who attended King’s address and traveled from Baltimore for the anniversary, said Wednesday’s celebration was tinged with a sense of disappointment.
The first “experience was so humbling and King’s words echoed with us almost like he was God,” said Watson, a retired telecommunications consultant who now works for a nonprofit group. “I just don’t get that kind of feeling today. We just don’t have peace today.”
Obama, often the star of his own speeches, left himself on the sidelines Wednesday. He drew laughs at one point after listing gains made by African Americans since the 1963 March on Washington in the job market, in state governments and in Congress. “And, yes, eventually, the White House changed,” he said.