March on Washington anniversary to bring together three US presidents

To observe the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, President Obama will deliver a speech that's expected to be tinged with personal feeling. Joining him will be Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Dorothy Meekins holds up the national flag with the picture of President Obama as she attends the rally, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 24.

Three presidents and scores of stars will gather at the Lincoln Memorial Wednesday to close the commemorative ceremonies marking Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington.

The 50th anniversary celebration – dubbed “Let Freedom Ring” – wraps a week-long series of local prayer services, a youth leadership training seminar, a round table about women of the movement, and discussions on poverty and economic empowerment, among other events.

So much has changed since that day – perhaps most obviously in modern times, the nation elected its first African-American president in 2008 – but for many involved in the cause of civil rights in this country, there is more to do. The wattage of notables set to turn out is not just a tribute to the nonviolent movement that King helped spawn as well as to his personal legacy, but also a reminder, many believe, of the work that remains.

President Obama, who will headline the final event, will be joined by former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Oprah Winfrey and the actors Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker will participate. Soledad O’Brien and Hill Harper will host, and Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, who spoke at the 1963 King rally, will address those gathered.

Many forget that the original march focused on jobs and economic parity as much as on equal rights, former NAACP chairman Julian Bond told USA Today. Mr. Bond, 23 years old at the time, delivered speech texts to journalists and sodas to celebrities, including Sammy Davis Jr. He tells Susan Page, the paper’s Washington bureau chief, that King’s speech helped shepherd into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The march, peaceful as it was, was one happening in an ongoing conversation about why black unemployment is higher than white unemployment and why housing is segregated in some communities, Bond says.

"Even today, 50 years from the March on Washington, white people tend to live over here; black people tend to live over there,” Bond says. “And as long as you live in separate places, you don't know each other. You can't have access to the best jobs. You can't have all the fruits that the country promises for you.

"That was true 50 years ago; that's true now. And it's something that has been neglected by the civil rights movement."

In reflecting on the 50th anniversary of her father’s speech, Bernice King, who is CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, calls the occasion a “wake-up call to really connect in the freedom struggle” and not just in moments of crisis. She echoes Bond’s description of disparities that still exist for blacks, adding health care, the justice system, and the environment to the list of issues requiring public attention and action.

And she mentions two recent headlines – the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn a key section of Voting Rights Act this summer and the Trayvon Martin case in Florida – as proof of why the discussion must continue.

“Struggle is a never-ending process,” Ms. King told “Freedom is never really won; you earn it and win it in every generation.”

Still, despite its historic nature, not everyone is embracing this walk down memory lane. Laura Ingraham, the conservative radio host and frequent Fox News personality, suggested on her show this week that the event’s goal "was to co-opt the legacy of Martin Luther King into a modern-day liberal agenda.” Her guest, former GOP presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, said minorities don’t suffer in modern society.

“Black folks excel and are hugely popular figures in everything from sports to entertainment to athletics to politics,” he said. “Everywhere you go ... So the progress has been enormous."

Few could dispute that Mr. Obama’s election is one illustration of progress. That a “skinny kid with a funny name,” as he used to say on the campaign trail, could grow up to be the 44th president of the United States is a true reflection of changing attitudes.

Obama has at times been a reluctant participant in the national conversation about race and equality, preferring to be seen as a president who represents all people rather than one who more closely identifies with a particular segment of the population. He is, as he also liked to say on the stump, the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas.

Obama has taken heat when he has waded into national affairs freighted with racial meaning. The shooting death of teen Trayvon by George Zimmerman is a prominent example.

Obama chooses his moments carefully, though, and on Wednesday we can expect a speech tinged with personal feeling. Aides have said Obama will stand where King once did and “chart a course for the future,” according to Time, with a special plea to the country’s young people.

“This moment in the continuum in our history is an important one,” Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett tells Time. “It gives the president a chance to reflect on those 50 years. What that speech meant to him, how far our nation has come, and where he sees our nation going.”

Anniversary event coordinators are asking that those interested join in a bell ringing at 3 p.m. A moment of modest song in an often divided Washington.

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