President Barack Obama today marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington by paying tribute to the courage of civil rights pioneers including Martin Luther King Jr., and calling for unity in the face of continuing challenges to live up to what he called the promise put forth in the Declaration of Independence.
Speaking at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, Obama reflected on the accomplishments of the Civil Rights era, while acknowledging that there remains room for improvement.
"On a hot summer day, they assembled here, in our nation's capital, under the shadow of the Great Emancipator to offer testimony of injustice, to petition their government for redress and to awaken America's long-slumbering conscience," Obama said. "We rightly and best remember Dr. King's soaring oratory that day. How he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions, how he offered a salvation path for oppressed and oppressors alike. His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time."
The president continued, "We would do well to recall that day itself also belonged to those ordinary people whose names never appeared in the history books, or appeared on TV" – the people who sat down at segregated lunch counters, or attended segregated schools, and faced dire oppression when they dared speak up for change.
"In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in, with the moral force of non-violence," Obama said. "Willingly, they went to jail to protest unjust laws, their cells swelling with the sound of freedom songs. A lifetime of indignities had taught them that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God gave us."
Failing to acknowledge the changes they set in motion, at home and around the world, dishonors the sacrifices they made, Obama said. "But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete," he said. "The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn't bend on its own."
Obama called for vigilance in beating back voter disenfranchisement efforts, in fighting for good jobs, fair pay and "ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all in the criminal justice system and not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails."
The president recalled that the March on Washington was as much about economic opportunity as civil rights, and said that advancing the marchers' goals requires people of all colors and creeds to work together.
"That's where courage comes from: when we turn not from each other, or on each other, but toward one another, and we find that we do not walk alone."