Obama to Deliver Speech Marking 50th Anniversary March on Washington

Race likely central to Obama’s MLK commemoration.

In this Aug. 28, 1963, photo, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to thousands during his "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

In this Aug. 28, 1963, photo, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to thousands during his "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

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Washington looks back on 50 years of civil rights history Wednesday, with President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and others delivering speeches on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the historic 1963 march on Washington and the "I Have a Dream" speech by Martin Luther King Jr.

Obama, the country's first black president, is expected to use his speech to look at the progress made in civil rights since King's time, but also point to existing struggles, including poverty, voting rights and criminal justice. His speech Wednesday will be the culmination of events that began last Saturday, including a weekend full of speakers from Rev. Al Sharpton to Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

[PHOTOS: A Look Back at the March on Washington]

"He will surely reaffirm the fight for reinforcing the Voting Rights Act," says Lorenzo Morris, political science professor at Howard University. "Similarly, Obama's national consciousness-raising role around criminal justice inequity following the Trayvon Martin case could not have been matched by any other president."

Obama memorably spoke to reporters following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a Florida man who shot unarmed, black teenager Trayvon Martin, but was found not guilty of any crime in a case that split public opinion widely along racial lines.

"Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," he said at the time. "And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it's important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away."

A recent Supreme Court ruling repealing part of the Voting Rights Act, paired with a rash of Republican-controlled states passing laws requiring voters to have identification at the polls have also galvanized the black community.

[PHOTOS: Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.]

"I would guess that he would say something about voting rights, in light of the Supreme Court decision and the importance of continuing to enforce voting rights, however that's done," says Harry Holzer, public policy professor at Georgetown University and an expert in race relations.

 

Holzer says one of the other important issues of racial equality that still persists is economic parity.

"There's no comparison between the economic environment today – we've got a massively larger black middle class, much more prosperity, much more opportunity – and yet, large education gaps remain, large achievement gaps remain, large employment gaps," he says.

Those continued inequities, which have plagued every president, have led some African Americans to be particularly disappointed in Obama, who came into office riding a wave of 'hope and change.'

[READ: Martin Luther King Jr., in His Own Words]

"Given the persistent inequalities between black and white employment, income and wealth, African Americans may certainly look for more from Obama," Morris says. He says while Obama's education initiatives compare favorably with 'Great Society' programs initiated in the 1960s in their aim to further the middle class, they have been met with more partisan opposition in Congress.

"Much like the Great Society programs of the 1960s, race relations are not specified by the policies but their presence and improvement are strongly implicated," Morris says. "I suspect he will draw on these themes of direct and indirect contributions during his speech."

The bar is certainly set high for Obama's remembrance of King and honoring the historic nature of the day. But Obama has proven in the past to be up to the challenge, experts say.

[READ: Walsh: Obama to Honor MLK in Wednesday Speech]

"We know this president can be extremely eloquent and extremely thoughtful, so I am going to guess he's going to try to hit all those themes and all those points," Holzer says.

The president is scheduled to speak at about 3 p.m. from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

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