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On Day of Hope and Celebration, Obama Leaves Himself on the Sidelines

( [email protected] ) Aug 29, 2013 01:27 AM EDT
In his speech Wednesday that commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the first black president emphasized the work of anonymous foot soldiers in securing gains in racial equality.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

In his speech Wednesday that commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the first black president emphasized the work of anonymous foot soldiers in securing gains in racial equality.

The range of reactions was reflected by the nation’s first black president, who celebrated successes while also acknowledging King’s unfulfilled dream, The Washington Post reported.

“The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own,” President Obama 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,” according to The Post.

That part of Obama's message spoke to Jackie Hawkins, sitting beneath a tree for cover on the Mall. 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, as quoted by The Post. “It is time for him to declare the drug war over. We have suffered enough.”

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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 in The Post. “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.

A half-century to the hour after King delivered his clarion call for justice from the Lincoln Memorial, it was the nation’s first black president who stood on that hallowed marble step, hailing the 50 years of racial progress that made his election possible but warning Americans that King’s dream remains unfulfilled, reports The Post.

“The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few,” President Obama said, as quoted by The Post. “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.”