*Wednesday’s “Let Freedom Ring” commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech focused not only on how far the nation’s fight for equality has come, but how far it has to go.
In the final speech of the day, President Obama said 50 years ago Dr. Martin Luther King “gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions … offered a salvation path for oppressed and oppressors alike.”
The ordinary people watching were just as important as those whose names appear in history books, Obama said. So were people who, when faced with bigotry, followed King’s model of nonviolent progress.
“Many had gone to segregated schools and sat at segregated lunch counters, lived in towns where they couldn’t vote and in cities where their votes didn’t matter,” Obama said. “There were couples in love who couldn’t marry, soldiers who fought for freedoms abroad that they found denied to them at home.
“They had every reason to lash out in anger and resign themselves to a bitter fate. Yet they chose a different path.”
Obama’s message was largely an economic one, as those who fought for civil rights were also fighting for financial freedom. “The men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract ideal,” said Obama. “They were seeking jobs as well as justice.”
“Yes, there have been examples of success in black America that would have been unimaginable half a century ago,” he said. “…City councils changed…. And eventually, the White House changed.” But he referenced the fact that unemployment is twice as high among African Americans as it is for whites.
“The gap in wealth between races has not lessened; it’s grown,” Obama said. “…This remains our great unfinished business.”
The day also featured speeches from former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and a list of civil-rights leaders and cultural figures. At 3 p.m. Washington time, bells rang out across the nation’s capital and the world, marking the moment King finished his speech in 1963.
Carter said he owed a personal debt to King, a fellow Southerner who backed Carter’s bid for the presidency in 1976. Nodding to Presidents Obama and Clinton, Carter said, “It’s highly unlikely that any of us three to my right would have served at the White House, or would be on this platform, if not for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his crusade for civil rights.”
Clinton remembered watching the marchers converge on Washington 50 years ago.
“They opened minds, they melted hearts and they moved millions, including a 17-year-old boy watching alone in his home in Arkansas.”
“Let freedom ring was Dr. King’s closing call for a better and more just America,” said Oprah Winfrey, one of the final speakers. “Today people from all walks of life will gather for bell ringing events all over our great country and the world, as we reaffirm our commitment to Dr. King’s ideals.”
“He challenged us to see how we all are more alike than we are different. So as the bells of freedom ring today, we are hoping it’s a time for all of us not only to reflect on the progress that we have made — and we have made a lot — but also to focus on … what lies before us.” [Scroll down to watch Oprah's speech.]
It was a message expressed throughout the day.
Rep. John Lewis passionately disagreed with anyone who told him that little has changed since King’s speech.
“For someone to grow up the way I grew up, in the cotton fields of Alabama to now serving in the U.S. Congress, it makes me want to tell them, ‘Come and walk in my shoes’,” he said.
“In 1963, we could not register to vote because the color of our skin.” A so-called voting literacy test involved guessing the number of bubbles in a bar of soap, and jellybeans in a jar, he said. “Medgar Evers had been killed in Mississippi. And that’s why we told President Kennedy we intended to march on Washington.”
Lewis praised King’s peaceful message and its effect at the March on Washington.
“Not one incident of violence was reported that day,” he said. “The spirit had engulfed the leadership of the movement and all its participants…. He changed us forever.”
But, like other speakers Wednesday, Lewis conceded that there is still more to do.
“Those signs that said white and colored are gone, and you won’t see them again, except in a museum or in a book or on a video,” he said. But there are still invisible signs… that form a gulf between us…. The signs and scars of racism still remain deeply embedded in society.”
Caroline Kennedy said her father, President John F. Kennedy, realized the country was facing a moral crisis in the 1960s, and that the work of the previous generation continues today.
“…We have suffered and sacrificed too much to let their dream become a memory,” she told the crowd. “….Now it’s our turn to live up to our parents’ dream, to draw renewed strength from what happened here 50 years ago.”
Kennedy said the crisis is far from over, citing the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial and what she called the Supreme Court’s “evisceration” of the Voting Rights Act as examples.
Actor Forest Whitaker told the crowd: “I remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great of a burden to bear’.”
Martin Luther King III called on the crowd to continue his father’s work, and not to fear the road ahead.
“I’m reminded that Dad challenged us, that’s what he did, he challenged our nation to be a better nation,” said King III. “….He often talked about [how] sometimes we must take some positions that are not safe… but our conscience tells us they are right.”
Jamie Foxx shunned the teleprompter and recalled a recent meeting with Harry Belafonte when the veteran entertainer served up a life lesson for the “Ray” star and his teenage daughter.
“When I sat with Mr. Belafonte, he asked my daughter, ‘How old are you?’ and my daughter said, ’19’. And I said, ‘Mr. Belafonte, what were you doing at 19?’ and he said, “I was coming home from World War Two and when I got back to America I wasn’t allowed to vote… I realized I had more work to do, so myself, Al (Sharpton), Jesse (Jackson) and Martin (Luther King), we marched.”
Foxx added, “What we need to do now is the young folks (need to) pick it up now, so that when we’re 87 years old, talking to the other young folks, we can say it was me, Will Smith, Jay Z, Kanye, Alicia Keys, Kerry Washington.”
The “Let Freedom Ring” commemoration event also featured speakers representing civil rights groups ranging from the union representing government employees to a group that organizes Jewish civil action.
The commemoration opened just after 11 a.m. with a solo trumpet performance of “When the Saints Go Marching In” by a student from D.C.’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Emcees Soledad O’Brien and Hill Harper welcomed guests and spoke on the historical significance of the day, thanking those who marched 50 years ago.
Rain dampened the participants, and there were many reports of attendees having trouble getting through clogged security screening stations. Some reported that attendees passed out while waiting to get in.
But the speakers energized those who did get in, including civil rights icon Andrew Young, who infused his remarks with a rendition of “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed On Freedom.”
Trayvon Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, also made an appearance on stage, joining Peter and Paul of Peter, Paul and Mary, in a song. The image of the 17-year-old who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman last year has been featured prominently in some of the week’s events commemorating the anniversary of the “I Have a Dream Speech.”
Martin was invoked several times through the day, as was voting rights.
Rev. Al Sharpton said, “We come today, not only to celebrate and commemorate, but as the children of Dr. King to face the children of Jim Crow. And just as our parents beat Jim Crow, we will beat James J. Crow Jr. Esq.”
Below, 1963 March participants Joyce Ladner of SNCC and Clayborne Carson, and CBS News correspondent Roger Mudd talk about the biased media coverage of the event and its impact on the March’s legacy.
Watch clips from Wednesday’s “Let Freedom Ring” 50th anniversary of the March on Washington event below.