Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, honored the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington Wednesday by calling for economic equality as he pushed to usher in a new era of civil rights.
Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — the same spot where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech — Obama said this sometimes-forgotten theme of that historic day a half-century ago remains elusive.
“The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few,” Obama said.
“It’s whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steel worker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran.”
Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter joined the president on the memorial.
Meanwhile, many Kansas City area residents who marched from a church to the Spirit of Freedom Fountain late Wednesday afternoon echoed the president’s sentiments.
“We are here to redeem the dream,” the Rev. Vernon Howard Jr., senior pastor of Second Baptist Church, said during a pre-march prayer service.
Howard, echoing King’s 1963 passage about African-Americans who lived “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” added that many remain “stuck on this lonely island.”
Howard also described King’s plans for a Poor People’s Campaign to lift the country “not from the top down but the bottom up.”
“This is where Dr. King was going,” Howard said, “and we have found his footprints in Kansas City.”
A grass-roots coalition of churches and neighborhood organizations helped plan the Kansas City events, which drew about 800 people, Howard said.
Organizers, he said, were motivated by the positive legacy of the 1963 march, which included the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“In light of all those things, I think we have a mandate to commemorate,” Howard said before the march.
The Rev. Robert Lee Hill, senior pastor of Community Christian Church, said the large turnout gave him hope.
“This day is a reminder that the dream lives on,” he said. “While much has been accomplished, much remains to be attained, and we shall overcome.”
Marchers left Second Baptist Church at 3620 E. 39th St., following members of Kansas City’s Marching Cobras as well as a color guard. They walked west and then south several blocks to the fountain at 4700 Cleveland Ave.
The dialogue was a mix of the sacred and secular.
“We are here to remind ourselves that we are grateful for his vision,” the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons of the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church said of King.
But, she said, to truly honor the memory of King and his followers “is less about building monuments than it is about building the society of freedom, equality, compassion and peace that they believed in.”
Missouri state Rep. Brandon Ellington urged marchers to become more engaged in the challenges that persist in the urban core.
Among the marchers were at least two who participated in the 1963 March on Washington.
“Today’s march is a reaffirmation by those people who want to keep the dream alive and apply it right now in Kansas City,” said Pat Kenoyer, 89, a Kansas City native and member of the Loretto religious community.
“My heart is made strong by all the youth here today,” added Edward Lewis, who attended the 1963 march as a 21-year-old postal worker.
“I can look back 50 years ago and think about all the young people who were there in Washington, and then see all the young people here today, and I know that the memory of that day will last forever.”
Many Kansas City marchers brought their children.
“For us it is simply to be able to show them what it means to love other people,” said Kurt Rietema, who pushed his son Luke, 4, in a stroller, while his wife, Emily, carried another son, Perkins, almost 2.
Lora McDonald brought 10-year old Ian. It was important, McDonald said, for her son to know about past and current struggles that confront those in Kansas City’s urban core.
While marchers in Kansas City shielded their eyes from the sun, those on Washington’s National Mall carried umbrellas to ward off a steady drizzle.
Speakers in Washington included Presidents Clinton and Carter, as well as entertainer Oprah Winfrey and U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, an organizer of the 1963 march.
The “Let Freedom Ring” ceremony in Washington capped a week of prayer services and training sessions, roundtables and seminars designed to commemorate the march and King’s famous speech.
“This march and that speech changed America,” Clinton said. “They opened minds, melted hearts and they moved millions.”
Wednesday’s mood was joyful but subdued, with present-day realities seeping into the festivities. Vendors hawked T-shirts honoring Trayvon Martin, the black teenager shot to death in Florida last year by a neighborhood watch coordinator. Code Pink, a peace organization, protested a potential U.S. military strike in war-torn Syria with a 20-foot banner demanding “U.S. Stay Out of Syria.”
Ellie Moyer, 75, a retiree from New York City, recalled that people threw rocks at the bus that transported her and others to and from the march in 1963.
“It was truly horrible. There was so much prejudice in every way, shape or form,” she said. “I’m glad that to a certain degree we are past that type of outward prejudice, but there is still an undercurrent in this country. We’ve come a long way, but (it’s) not enough.”
Obama spoke just after 3 p.m. when a bell from the Birmingham, Ala., church that was bombed in 1963 rang to mark King’s historic speech.
“The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own,” Obama said. “To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency.”