Former president Bill Clinton commemorates Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial. (The Washington Post)

Former President Bill Clinton said Wednesday that Americans should move past "political gridlock" in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“We don’t face beatings, lynchings and shootings for our political beliefs anymore," Clinton said on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. "Martin Luther King did not live and die to hear his heirs whine about political gridlock.”

Clinton suggested that the nation's political disagreements are small compared to its racial past.

“The martyrs paid it all for a dream – a dream that, as John Lewis said, millions have lived," Clinton said, referring to Rep. John Lewis's (D-Ga.) remarks before him.

More than most recent presidents, Clinton openly grappled with the issue of racism in America. In June 1997, speaking at a commencement ceremony at the University of California, San Diego, Clinton launched what he called a "great and unprecedented conversation about race" to help Americans with different backgrounds confront America's legacy of discrimination.

"Can we fulfill the promise of America by embracing all our citizens of all races -- not just at a university where people have the benefit of enlightened teachers and the time to think and grow and get to know each other within the daily life of every American community?" he asked at the time. "In short, can we become one America in the 21st century?"

Clinton spoke frankly about being a Southerner, and how his experience growing up in Arkansas helped inform his perspective on race.

African American author Toni Morrison sparked controversy in 1998 when she wrote that Clinton, who was facing impeachment charges at the time, had become "our first black president."

"Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black president. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime," Morrison wrote. "After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas."

Clinton's national conversation on race, however, yielded few concrete results -- a fact President Obama alluded to last month when he urged Americans to discuss the challenge of racism in small, intimate groups rather than repeatedly calling for national conversations.