Obama: “America Changed for You and for Me”

The "Let Freedom Ring" ceremony featured former presidents, civil rights leaders and celebrity speeches and performances.

Posted: 08/28/2013 08:30 AM EDT

 (Photo: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

It's no easy feat to follow in the footsteps of someone so iconic, but President Obama did an admirable job in remarks delivered to conclude the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington.

His speech was the culmination of a weeklong series of events that celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy and the sacrifice he and so many others made in the civil rights struggle. It was also a call to action to complete the parts of Dr. King's dream that remain unfulfilled.

The president recalled how Americans, both Black and white, traveled to Washington 50 years ago by any means necessary to express their commitment to equal rights and freedom for all as promised by the nation's founding fathers.

"They were seamstresses and steelworkers, students and teachers, maids and Pullman porters. They shared simple meals and bunked together on floors. And then, on a hot summer day, they assembled here, in our nation’s capital, under the shadow of the Great Emancipator ― to offer testimony of injustice, to petition their government for redress, and to awaken America’s long-slumbering conscience," President Obama said.

And when that day came and went, these individuals continued their fight through smaller marches, boycotts, voter registration drives and other efforts, he added, and refused to give up even in the light of tragedies such as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little girls and the "carnage" of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in March 1965.

"And because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, a civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, a voting rights law was signed," Obama said. "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. Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed, and, yes, eventually, the White House changed."

He also noted the work left to be done, citing the need to lower African-American unemployment and increase economic opportunity for all.

"For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?" he said. 

Americans have a choice about the nation's direction, the president said.

"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," he said.  "Or we can have the courage to change."

Obama's Democratic predecessors Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter also addressed thousands who participated in the event on the National Mall.

Members of Dr. Martin Luther King's family and other civil rights leaders, including Georgia Rep. John Lewis, the only person still living who spoke at the original march, and a lineup of politicians and celebrities also will pay tribute to the slain civil rights leader and the movement he symbolizes today.

At 3 p.m. ET, exactly 50 years to the minute after King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, bell ringing events took place around the nation. In addition, citizens of other nations held bell-ringing ceremonies at 3 p.m. in their respective time zones.

"My father concluded his great speech with a call to ‘Let freedom ring,’ and that is a challenge we will meet with a magnificent display of brotherhood and sisterhood in symbolic bell-ringing at places of worship, schools and other venues where bells are available from coast to coast and continent to continent,” said King Center CEO and youngest child of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King, Bernice King.

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