Commentary: In Celebrating the 1963 March, Obama Urges Compassion

The 50th anniversary of the Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech included a well-tempered perspective by President Obama.

Posted: 08/28/2013 04:33 PM EDT

For the second time in five days, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington was the scene of some intensely captivating sights commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Wednesday event was significantly different in tone and character from the larger event on Saturday. Most significantly, it was highlighted by the presence of the nation's president, who at times spoke in the cadences of an African-American preacher, offering a compelling appeal for the nation to be driven by a sense of compassion.

President Obama paid homage to Dr. King and, at the same time, offered praise to the hundreds of thousands of unnamed, uncelebrated foot soldiers in the movement for social justice, the maids, porters, teachers, students and steelworkers who sacrificed to attend the March on Washington 50 years ago.

“Because they kept marching, America changed,” Obama said, “Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes.”

The Wednesday event, which fell on the actual 50th anniversary of the march and King’s speech, was steeped in history. There were appearances by former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter as well as the eldest daughters of presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. There were also speeches by members of the King family, including the sole surviving sibling of the civil rights leader, Christine King Farris. And there was United States Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, the last living speaker from the 1963 march.

But Mr. Obama also focused on the present and future. He did not lay out a specific legislative agenda and nor urge any action by Congress, because it was not the proper occasion. He discussed the challenges that lay on the horizon, from the current widespread assault on voting rights to the continuing and vexing disparity in African-American employment levels compared to those of white workers.

It was a speech that focused on the theory that the approach for the nation to take to climb out of disparity and inequality is rooted in compassion.

“The promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together,” the president said.

And in words that could well reflect the challenges he faces in his own presidential agenda, Obama spoke about the fact that progress will not be easy.

“The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice,” the president added, using a line from King’s own speech, “but it doesn’t bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency.”

It was a somber, reflective and yet, forward-looking event. And that's as it should have been. The president was right to observe that the same internal American fortitude that enabled the nation to overcome segregated lunch counters and hotel accommodations will be required to overcome the current efforts to restrict voting rights and inequality in employment and education. That's the true challenge facing the nation 50 years after Dr. King shared his dream.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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