Fifty Years: "Let Freedom Ring"

August 28, 2013

This week our nation commemorated the Fiftieth Anniversary of the March on Washington. On Saturday tens of thousands of Americans gathered on the Mall in Washington DC to retrace the steps of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis and other greats of the Civil Rights Movement.  They listened to speakers whose words echoed the themes heard in 1963 – freedom, jobs, voting rights, and the end to violence. They heard from speakers who brought up today's themes of immigration reform, gay and lesbian rights and an end to stand your ground laws.

Every speaker was united in the view that the fight for justice and freedom continues. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told the crowd, "Their march is now our march."

The youngest speaker in 1963 was civil rights activist and Freedom Rider, John Lewis. Saturday, as the only person still alive among all who who spoke in 1963, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) said, "It doesn't make sense that millions of our people are living in the shadows. Bring them out into the light and set them on the path to citizenship."

Today, President Obama was joined by former Presidents Carter and Clinton on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood fifty years ago in 1963 to deliver his iconic "I Have A Dream" speech. Members of the King family, Rep. John Lewis, and Oprah also spoke. Caroline Kennedy, daughter of President John F. Kennedy, and Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson were also among the dignitaries.

Missing from the commemoration that recognized a nation-changing speech and the accomplishments of an American hero were any past or present leaders from the Republican Party. House Speaker Boehner, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor both declined invitations. Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush both declined invitations for health reasons. Former Governor Jeb Bush just declined.

At 3:00 pm bells rang across the nation to celebrate Dr. King's legacy and to symbolize his words, "Let freedom ring."  The bell rescued from the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was rung by members of the King family on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Bells also rang across the world in Tokyo, London, Liberia, Nepal, and in Switzerland to commemorate the day.

President Obama spoke of the great changes that took place "because they marched." He spoke of the way America changed "for you and for me." He spoke of economic inequity, immigration and the need to "continue the work of this nation."

From his speech:
But the good news is, just as was true in 1963, we now have a choice. We can continue down our current path in which the gears of this great democracy grind to a halt and our children accept a life of lower expectations, where politics is a zero-sum game, where a few do very well while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking economic pie. That's one path. Or we can have the courage to change. 
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. 
And 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. It's there when the native born recognizing that striving spirit of a new immigrant, when the interracial couple connects the pain of a gay couple who were discriminated against and understands it as their own. That's where courage comes from, when we turn not from each other or on each other but towards one another, and we find that we do not walk alone. That's where courage comes from. 
And with that courage, we can stand together for good jobs and just wages. With that courage, we can stand together for the right to health care in the richest nation on earth for every person. 
With that courage, we can stand together for the right of every child, from the corners of Anacostia to the hills of Appalachia, to get an education that stirs the mind and captures the spirit and prepares them for the world that awaits them. 
With that courage, we can feed the hungry and house the homeless and transform bleak wastelands of poverty into fields of commerce and promise. America, I know the road will be long, but I know we can get there. Yes, we will stumble, but I know we'll get back up. That's how a movement happens. That's how history bends. That's how, when somebody is faint of heart, somebody else brings them along and says, come on, we're marching. 
There's a reason why so many who marched that day and in the days to come were young, for the young are unconstrained by habits of fear, unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dared to dream different and to imagine something better. And I am convinced that same imagination, the same hunger of purpose serves in this generation. We might not face the same dangers as 1963, but the fierce urgency of now remains. We may never duplicate the swelling crowds and dazzling processions of that day so long ago, no one can match King's brilliance, but the same flames that lit the heart of all who are willing to take a first step for justice, I know that flame remains. 
That tireless teacher who gets to class early and stays late and dips into her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that every child is her charge -- she's marching. 
That successful businessman who doesn't have to, but pays his workers a fair wage and then offers a shot to a man, maybe an ex-con, who's down on his luck -- he's marching. 
The mother who pours her love into her daughter so that she grows up with the confidence to walk through the same doors as anybody's son -- she's marching. 
The father who realizes the most important job he'll ever have is raising his boy right, even if he didn't have a father, especially if he didn't have a father at home -- he's marching. 
The battle-scarred veterans who devote themselves not only to helping their fellow warriors stand again and walk again and run again, but to keep serving their country when they come home -- they are marching. 
Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day, that change does not come from Washington but to Washington, that change has always been built on our willingness, we, the people, to take on the mantle of citizenship -- you are marching. 
And that's the lesson of our past, that's the promise of tomorrow, that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it. And when millions of Americans of every race and every region, every faith and every station can join together in a spirit of brotherhood, then those mountains will be made low, and those rough places will be made plain, and those crooked places, they straighten out towards grace, and we will vindicate the faith of those who sacrificed so much and live up to the true meaning of our creed as one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.