President Barack Obama offered reverence for civil rights leaders of the past and urged action from future leaders during his address commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington Wednesday from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Approximately 100,000 people gathered in the rain to listen to a slew of orators, including former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as well as relatives of Martin Luther King Jr. whose 'I Have a Dream' speech in 1963 inspired millions of Americans to fight for racial equality.
"Because they marched, America became more free and more fair, not just for African-Americans but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, for Catholics, Jews, Muslims, for gays, for Americans with disabilities," Obama said. "America changed for you and for me and the entire world drew strength from that example."
In a 28-minute address that bobbed between academic to preacher-like at times, Obama highlighted the nation's continued economic injustices – and their disproportionate negative impact on minorities – as this generation's civil rights call-to-arms.
While progress has been made, blacks continue to face an unemployment rate nearly twice as high as whites, he said
"[The original marchers] were there seeking jobs as well as justice," he said. "The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few, 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."
The president also took aim at small-government conservatives, knocking the racially discriminatory undertones he sees in their message.
"We'd be told that growing inequality was the price for a growing economy, a measure of the free market; that greed was good and compassion ineffective, and those without jobs or health care had only themselves to blame," Obama said.
But he also laid blame for lack of progress with some in the African-American community.
"If we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us, claiming to push for change, lost our way," he said. "Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse- making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination."
Ultimately, Obama said, despite stumbles he's optimistic progress toward racial equality and economic opportunity will continue.
"The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history; that we are masters of our fate," he said. "Yes, we will stumble, but I know we'll get back up. That's how a movement happens. That's how history bends. That's how, when somebody is faint of heart, somebody else brings them along and says, come on, we're marching. We might not face the same dangers as 1963, but the fierce urgency of now remains."
Speaking prior to Obama, former President Bill Clinton also balanced the progress made against the progress yet to come.
"What a debt we owe to those people who came before us, 50 years ago," Clinton said. "The martyrs paid it all for a dream, a dream as John Lewis said millions have now actually lived. So how are we going to repay the debt?"
Clinton's call to arms was a bit more pointed than Obama, asserting that partisan gridlock should be no excuse for lack of progress.
"I would respectfully suggest that Martin Luther King did not live and die to hear his heirs whine about political gridlock," Clinton said. "It is time to stop complaining and put our shoulders against the stubborn gate holding the American people back."