A half-century to the hour after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his clarion call for justice from the Lincoln Memorial, it was the nation’s first black president who stood on that hallowed marble step, hailing the 50 years of racial progress that made his election possible but warning Americans that King’s dream remains unfulfilled.
“The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few,” President Obama said. “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.”
Tens of thousands convened under sometimes rainy skies Wednesday for a celebration that was both homage to and echo of the 1963 March on Washington. Umbrellas and plastic ponchos took the place of the mid-century fedoras and skinny ties. But many still talked of recapturing the mood of a day of euphoria amid the chaos and clashes of the 1960s.
Obama — flanked by members of King’s family, two former Democratic presidents and Oprah Winfrey — spoke beside a cast-iron bell from the church in Birmingham, Ala., where a bomb killed four black girls in September 1963. At 3 p.m., roughly the time of King’s seminal address, that bell was rung, as were bells around the country.
Forgoing an umbrella in spite of persistent drizzle, Obama then addressed a crowd that extended beyond the Reflecting Pool. Some television networks showed archival footage of the 1963 crowd in split screen, giving the appearance of the modern president speaking across the decades to the grainy black-and-white masses of history.
Many celebrants arrived on the Mall after walking the same path of the 250,000 who marched on Aug. 28, 1963, retracing the soft footfalls that helped begin a cultural earthquake and eventually shook apart the bulwarks of legal discrimination against African Americans.
There were long lines at the security checkpoints, and some people were treated for heat-
related conditions. Additional screeners were deployed to clear the backlog of people waiting to get onto the Mall just before the headline speakers appeared.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting congressional delegate and one of the organizers of the original march, marveled at the turnout on a wet and muggy workday.
“Fifty years ago, we had to convince the president to let us come. Today, the president is coming to us,” she exulted.
The day was a mix of historical reflections and modern tension. The parents of slain teenager Trayvon Martin joined in singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” with Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey, who had performed the song at the 1963 march as part of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the last living speaker from the original rally, took the microphone again to answer his own fierce call to action five decades earlier.
“This moment in our history has been a long time coming, but a change has come,” Lewis said. But he warned, as other speakers did, that the progress should not be mistaken for full equality at a time when African Americans face higher unemployment rates, illegal immigrants live in fear and the Supreme Court has voided sections of the Voting Rights Act.
Former president Bill Clinton was even more forceful about what he views as the misplaced priorities of the country.
“A great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon,” Clinton said.
Obama also used the occasion to address the partisan divide, laying out a moral case for a second-term domestic agenda that has been bogged down by Washington’s stubborn political gridlock.
“The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history, that we are masters of our fate,” Obama said. “ . . . 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.”
As if to underscore the country’s political polarization, however, not a single Republican lawmaker was among the dozens of elected officials and activists who addressed the crowd. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said he had been invited but declined after participating in a congressional ceremony marking the anniversary leading up to the march. Former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush both declined invitations to attend, because of health problems.
Many in the crowd were ready to celebrate the huge cultural shifts that mean many young people are more familiar with sharing playgrounds, classrooms and bedrooms with members of other races than with the bus boycotts, church bombings and fire hoses of King’s era.
For David Figari, the moment seemed perfect to cement his own relations across racial lines. On the steps of the Georgetown University Law Center, just before setting out on a 1.7-mile march to the Lincoln Memorial, Figari, who is white, asked Jessica Jones, who is black, to marry him. They are both 25-year-olds from Tampa.
He knelt on the steps in front of his girlfriend and held out a ring. She said yes, and their fellow marchers exploded in cheers.
“I think our relationship brings the whole idea of the march to fruition,” Figari said.
Older marchers recounted their own history with Jim Crow and, in some cases, the personal outrages that brought them to Washington 50 years ago.
Nannie Blakeney, 63, remembers when her grandmother was a housekeeper for a white family. Blakeney would play with the family’s children but was not permitted to sit down with them for lunch.
“I wanted to eat with the little girl, and they said I had to eat in the kitchen,” she said. “I kept asking my grandmother, ‘Why? Why?’ She said, “Because if you don’t, they’ll beat you.’ ”
Blakeney was 13 when she made the trip from Virginia to the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
“We’ve come a long way,” she said. “I have mixed-race grandchildren now.”
Others were born long after the signs came off the water fountains and the laws that assigned bus seats and lunch spots based on the color of a customer’s skin were overturned. But the young brought their own concerns to the Mall on Wednesday, including scarce jobs and rampant violence.
Antoine Pendleton, 23, said both were on his mind.
“I’m a black male trying to succeed out here,” said Pendleton, a recent graduate of the historically black Cheyney University who works at a Pittsburgh home for people with severe disabilities. “Get the guns off the street. I’m trying to make it to the 75th anniversary.”
The day began with an interfaith service Wednesday morning at Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, where faith leaders reprised King’s message in the context of traditions ranging from Sikh to Southern Baptist.
“Hate cannot drive out hate — only love can do that,” said Imam Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America. Magid recalled how he leaned on King’s memory in the period of violence against Muslims after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “His message of diversity is that God created all people, that we can walk together on the path of peace.”
At the Lincoln Memorial, the program included a packed roster of speakers, including former Atlanta mayor and civil rights activist Andrew Young, actor Jamie Foxx, and Winfrey, who spoke with a park ranger holding an umbrella over her head.
If the marchers of 1963 would have been agog at the idea of a black president 50 years later, they may have been even more stunned by the hyper-merchandizing that surrounds him. The vendors were out in force Wednesday with $10 Obama piggy banks, $3 first-family tote bags and much more.
And then there was Obama himself. Two of him, if you count the cardboard cutout of the president that Catherine Nanfuka carried over her shoulder.
On Wednesday, she could barely move 10 feet without being approached by someone who asked to be photographed with the life-size but flat commander in chief.
“It makes me so happy,” Nanfuka said. “You should see the reaction. People say: ‘I can’t believe it’s free to take a picture. Here, take a dollar!’ But no, it’s free.”
Hamil Harris, DeNeen Brown and Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.