Obama’s tribute to King for 50 years of progress

First black president hails civil rights hero and marchers for changing US and the White House

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 11:55am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 August, 2013, 2:34am

US President Barack Obama stepped into the space where the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King once stood and summoned his iconic dream of a colour-blind society in a celebration of a half-century of progress and a call to arms for the next generation.

On a day of overcast skies and misty rain, tens of thousands of Americans - black, white and every shade in between - returned to the site of King's "I have a dream" speech to listen to the nation's first black president pay tribute to the pioneers who paved the way for his own rise to head of state.

Video: Leaders honour Martin Luther King

"Because they kept marching, America changed," Obama said as King's family watched. "Because they marched, a civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, a 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.

"Because they marched," he added, "city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually, the White House changed."

Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually, the White House changed

The symbolic journey from King to Obama on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial animated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom more than any oratory. While Obama's line about the White House changing was his only reference to his unique place in history, the power of his presence was lost on no one.

Several of the speakers, including former president Jimmy Carter, tied the historic nature of the event to current controversies, including black teenager Trayvon Martin's shooting, the New York police's frisking policy and the Supreme Court ruling this summer that overturned part of the Voting Rights Act. "I think we know how Dr King would have reacted," Carter said.

Yet former president Bill Clinton said it was time to "stop complaining and put our shoulders against the stubborn gates holding the American people back'.

Among the witnesses to 50 years of progress was former Postal Service worker Gil Lyons, now 82, who recalled being moved to tears by King's address.

"People said we would have a black president. I said to myself I probably would never see one. But what can I say? In my time, Obama came along," he said.