Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - In his address to thousands who gathered on the Washington Mall on Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, President Obama paid tribute to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and to the anonymous millions who stood by King's side during the civil rights fight of the 1960s.
Obama remembered those who could not marry the ones they loved because of so-called anti-miscegenation laws, African-American soldiers who fought for freedom abroad that they could not enjoy on U.S. soil and white Americans who could not stand by discrimination and sacrificed sometimes with their own blood .
"Because they marched, America became more fair," Obama said. "America changed for you and me and the entire world grew strength from that example."
Before Obama took the stage on Wednesday, former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton offered stirring tributes to King.
Carter lamented what King might have thought about recent the Supreme Court ruling that gutted voting right laws that he fought for or the high unemployment rate and incarceration rates plaguing the African-American community.
"There is a tremendous agenda ahead of us," Carter said.
Clinton also spoke about the racial divide that he said still exists in the USA and the myriad problems facing the nation. But he also suggested that King would be disappointed by the partisan division that roils Washington. But Clinton posited that King "did not die to hear his heirs whine about political gridlock."
"It's time to stop complaining and put our shoulders against the stubborn gates holding Americans back," Clinton said.
Obama was just a toddler when king delivered his seminal "I Have a Dream" address 50 years ago, but the words of the civil rights leader have served as a rhetorical and moral guidepost throughout his presidency.
As he emerged as a long-shot presidential candidate in 2008, Obama often quoted King on the campaign trail that the "arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." And in his 2008 election night victory speech, Obama echoed King's "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, when he intoned "the road ahead will be long, our climb will be steep."
And in the lead up to the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington on Wednesday, Obama, the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, has embraced his role as the personification of King's dream while repeatedly questioning whether the nation has lived up to that dream.
His address will be the culminating moment for Obama in a summer in which he has repeatedly reflected on King's legacy and taken stock of the country's progress and failures to create a more economically and racially just society.
Obama began his season of reflection in May when he delivered the commencement address at Atlanta's Morehouse College, the nation's pre-eminent historically black college and alma mater of King.
In a persistent rain, Obama spoke to the graduates about their direct connection to King, who entered the college as a serious 15-year-old boy nicknamed "Tweed" by his classmates for the suits he wore, and his own rise to leader of the free world.
"Over the last 50 years, thanks to the moral force of Dr. King and a Moses generation that overcame their fear and their cynicism and their despair, barriers have come tumbling down, and new doors of opportunity have swung open, and laws and hearts and minds have been changed to the point where someone who looks just like you can somehow come to serve as president of these United States of America," Obama said.
In more recent comments as he reflected on King's legacy, Obama has tried to shift the focus from race to class and frame the struggle in a way that resonates broadly to Americans as the economy continues to limp along.
In an interview with the New York Times after he opened a series of speeches on the middle class in Galesburg, Ill., last month, Obama recalled that the March on Washington was also about jobs.
''When you think about the coalition that brought about civil rights, it wasn't just folks who believed in racial equality,'' he said. ''It was people who believed in working folks having a fair shot.''
Last week, as he spoke to college students in New York state, Obama noted the progress the country has made, but suggested economic discrimination remains rampant.
"Each generation seems wiser about wanting to treat people fairly and do the right thing and not discriminate, and that's a great victory that we should all be very proud of," Obama said. "On the other hand, what we've also seen is the legacy of discrimination, slavery, Jim Crow, has meant that some of the institutional barriers for success for a lot of groups still exist. African-American poverty in this country is still significantly higher than other groups. The same is true for Latinos, same is true for Native Americans."
As Obama prepared for his speech this week, he met with pastors and civil rights leaders and signaled that he'll use Wednesday afternoon's address to make the case that the present-day battles over voting rights, education, unemployment and implementation of his signature health care law are linked directly to King and his contemporaries' fight.
At the same time, Obama, whose rhetorical gifts have been compared to King's, has attempted to lower expectations for his speech.
"When you are talking about Dr. King's speech at the March on Washington, you're talking about one of the maybe five greatest speeches in American history," Obama said in a radio interview Tuesday. "And the words that he spoke at that particular moment, with so much at stake, and the way in which he captured the hopes and dreams of an entire generation I think is unmatched."