WASHINGTON — Washington marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with Oprah, three presidents and a notable lack of Republican speakers.
Former President George W. Bush was invited to join Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but was unable to attend as he’s still recovering from heart surgery. Bush released a lengthy statement today marking the anniversary.
“Dr. King was on this Earth just 39 years, but the ideals that guided his life of conscience and purpose are eternal,” the 43rd president said. “Honoring him requires the commitment of every one of us. There’s still a need for every American to help hasten the day when Dr. King’s vision is made real in every community – when what truly matters is not the color of a person’s skin, but the content of their character.”
The office of Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) confirmed that the only African-American senator currently in Congress was not invited to speak at the event.
“The senator believes today is a day to remember the extraordinary accomplishments and sacrifices of Dr. King, Congressman John Lewis and an entire generation of black leaders,” a Scott spokesman said.
Scott did mark the occasion with an op-ed in The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.
“When people ask what motivates me or drives me to serve the public good, I have a simple yet complex answer: I am living my mother’s American Dream. That dream was strengthened by the efforts of Dr. King, Congressman John Lewis and the countless other civil rights leaders who gave so much to build a better future. And nowhere were those efforts more clear than in the messages that came out of the March on Washington,” Scott wrote.
“…Everyone deserves the opportunity to succeed. Every parent deserves the chance to see his or her children grow up in a brighter world. And all men are created equal.”
Veterans of the 1963 march led a crowd down Constitution Avenue toward the final rally point at the mall.
Speakers included some of those march veterans who now serve on Capitol Hill: Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine).
Also taking the podium were members of MLK’s family, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s daughter Lynda, Caroline Kennedy, Bahamian Prime Minister Perry Christie, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), NAACP president Ben Jealous, Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), AFSCME union boss Lee Saunders, Urban League president Marc Morial, SEIU union boss Mary Kay Henry, former NAACP chairman Julian Bond, and actor Jamie Foxx.
“I’m going to tell you right now that everybody my age and all the entertainers, it’s time for us to stand up now and renew this dream. That’s what we got to do. I was affected by — I was affected by the Trayvon Martin situation. I was affected by Newtown. I was affected by Sandy Hook. I’m affected by those things. So it’s time for us now to pick up,” Foxx said.
“…What we need to do now is the young folks 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 list goes on and on. Don’t make me start preaching up here,” he added.
Lewis admonished the crowd to remember that even though there is still work to do, “we have come a great distance in this country in the 50 years.”
“Sometimes I hear people saying, nothing has changed, but for someone to grow up the way I grew up in the cotton fields of Alabama to now be serving in the United States Congress, makes me want to tell them, come and walk in my shoes,” the congressman said. “Come walk in the shoes of those who were attacked by police dogs, fire hoses, and nightsticks, arrested and taken to jail. I first came to Washington in the same year that President Barack Obama was born to participate in a Freedom Ride.”
“…We truly believe that in every human being, even those who were violent toward us, there was a spark of the divine. And no person had the right to scar or destroy that spark. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence,” Lewis continued. “He taught us to have the power to forgive, the capacity to be reconciled.”
Lewis met and made peace in 2009 with Elwin Wilson, a former Ku Klux Klan member who came to Lewis’ office and confessed to beating the young Freedom Rider in 1961. “We can all learn a valuable lesson from the life of this one man,” Lewis said upon Wilson’s passing this April. “He demonstrates to all of us that we fall down, but we can get up.”
Carter reflected on King’s support in the 1976 presidential campaign. “Every handshake from Dr. King…every hug from Coretta got me a million Yankee votes,” he said.
“I believe we all know how Dr. King would have reacted to the new I.D. Requirements to exclude certain voters especially African- Americans. I think we all know how Dr. King would have reacted to the Supreme Court striking down a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act just recently passed overwhelming by Congress,” Carter continued.
“I think we all know how Dr. King would have reacted to unemployment among African-Americans being almost twice the rate of white people, and for teenagers at 42 percent. I think we would all know how Dr. King would have reacted to our country being awash in guns and for more and more states passing stand your ground laws.”
Clinton said MLK’s landmark address “moved millions, including a 17-year-old boy watching alone in his home in Arkansas.”
“Dr. King’s dream of interdependence, his prescription of whole-hearted cooperation across racial lines, they ring as true today as they did 50 years ago,” he said. “Oh, yes, we face terrible political gridlock now. Read a little history. It’s nothing new. Yes, there remain racial inequalities in employment, income, health, wealth, incarceration and in the victims and perpetrators of violent crime. But we don’t face beatings, lynchings and shootings for our political beliefs anymore. And I would respectfully suggest that Martin Luther King did not live and die to hear his heirs whine about political gridlock. It is time to stop complaining and put our shoulders against the stubborn gates holding the American people back.”
Clinton then pushed into a handful of political issues including healthcare and voter ID, saying “a great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon.”
“Let us not forget that while racial divides persist and must not be denied, the whole American landscape is littered with the lost dreams and dashed hopes of people of all races,” he added. “…The choice remains as it was on that distant summer day 50 years ago. Cooperate and thrive, or fight with each other and fall behind.”
Obama aimed for a philosophical speech after the King family rang the bell that was retrieved from the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, 1963.
“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 and Muslims, for gays, for Americans with disabilities,” Obama said. “…People who could have given up and given in, but kept on keeping on, knowing that weeping may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning.”
“Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Martin Luther King, Jr. — they did not die in vain. Their victory was great. But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own,” the president continued. “…Yes, there have been examples of success within black America that would have been unimaginable a half-century ago. But as has already been noted, black unemployment has remained almost twice as high as white employment, Latino unemployment close behind. The gap in wealth between races has not lessened; it’s grown.”
“The march on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history; that we are masters of our fate. But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together. We’ll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow-feeling, the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago. I believe that spirit is there. That true force inside each of us. I see it when a white mother recognizes her own daughter in the face of a poor black child. I see it when the black youth thinks of his own grandfather in the dignified steps of an elderly white man.… When the when the interracial couple connects the pain of a gay couple who are discriminated against and understands it as their own. That is where courage comes from.”