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'I Have a Dream' speech: Obama calls to fully realize King's vision (+video)

'I Have a Dream' speech was commemorated Wednesday by President Obama, who urged Americans to 'turn not from each other, or on each other, but towards one another.'

By Staff writer / August 28, 2013

President Barack Obama speaks at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr., spoke, Aug. 28, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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Atlanta

President Obama, in a passionate plea to recast Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech for a new generation, told Americans that to suggest the country hasn’t fundamentally changed on race is to “dishonor” King and his civil rights cohorts. But, the president also said, the failure to realize half of King’s message – economic justice for all – threatens to grind “the gears of a great democracy ... to a halt.”

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President Barack Obama encouraged Americans to continue the march in his speech on Wednesday marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

On a drizzly afternoon in Washington, Mr. Obama – perhaps the ultimate beneficiary of King’s work and sacrifice – described the past 50 years as an arc to racial equality. He laid out arguably his clearest vision for America’s future, calling on people to virtually march toward the inalienable rights not just of personhood, but also of a middle-class life.

The way there, he said, is for Americans to have the courage not to turn away from each other, but “towards one another.”

“As we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks could join the ranks of millionaires. It was whether this country would admit all people who are willing to work hard regardless of race into the ranks of a middle-class life,” Obama said. “The test was not, and never has been, whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many.”

He was flanked by surviving members of the King family as well as two past Democratic presidents, although no surviving Republican presidents. The event Wednesday capped five days of commemorations of the 1963 March on Washington. Many of the remembrances and recollections became reminders of how different America has become, in large part because of the moral “truth force” of King.

The trailblazing pastor from Atlanta was widely seen as a pariah, including by President Kennedy, before his 1968 assassination in Memphis, Tenn. Then began his transformation into an iconic figure, someone whom former President Carter on Wednesday called “the greatest leader that my native state and my native country ever produced, and that includes past presidents and the Founders.”

His work, including the 1963 speech, laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both of which forcibly ended the segregation and voting injustices of Jim Crow. Having identified King’s speech as one of the five best oratorical gestures of history, Obama had said before his own speech that he’d be hard pressed to match the sheer force of King’s message and oratory. He was presumably right, though the clarity of his vision for the country will probably be referenced as a landmark of his presidency.

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