The Washington Post

In march speech, Obama celebrates work of anonymous foot soldiers

During his speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, President Obama says that while no one can match Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s brilliance, the spirt from 50 years ago lives on. (The Washington Post)

As Barack Obama began to speak at the steps of the distant Lincoln Memorial, Brie O’Neal turned up the volume on her small Toshiba radio.

It was the only way to hear the far-away president, whose voice echoed unintelligibly across the Reflecting Pool. The radio belonged to O’Neal’s father, a Korean War veteran who died two years before Obama was elected.

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.

But Obama mostly emphasized the work of the anonymous foot soldiers in places such as Selma and Birmingham, Ala., who bore the brunt of state punishment.

“On the battlefield of justice,” he said, “men and women without rank or wealth or title or fame would liberate us all in ways that our children now take for granted.”

Those people include Deborah Tutson, 57, an activist from San Francisco who flew to Washington with her mother, Delores, joining the rest of the outfield audience on the far side of the World War II Memorial.

Tutson volunteers for the nonprofit A. Philip Randolph Institute, named for one of the leaders of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She helps register voters, advocates for African American access to jobs and, most recently, encourages young people to enroll for insurance under Obama’s signature health-care program.

“The rich can’t always be rich, the poor always poor, and the middle class paying and paying, so it was very important for me to be here to represent,” Tutson said. “This is history and we have a big struggle still ahead, on these matters and others. Our children still need to be taught what this struggle is about now.”

After Obama finished his speech, those who had listened in on O’Neal’s radio shook her hand one by one, thanking her for allowing them to experience a moment that several said they would long remember.

One wanted to take a picture of O’Neal from behind, placing her in the foreground with the Mall sloping toward the World War II Memorial, then to the slate-gray Reflecting Pool, and finally on the hazy Lincoln Memorial in the distance. O’Neal thanked her, providing her e-mail address so she could receive a copy.

Had her father imagined that the country would elect a black president one day? O’Neal, a freelance media producer, said he once called her after seeing Obama speak in 2004, acknowledging that his pessimism about the rising politician might be misplaced.

“You may be right,” O’Neal recalled him telling her. “He may be going somewhere.”

Scott Wilson is the chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Previously, he was the paper’s deputy Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News after serving as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.

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