Editor’s note: Below are excerpts from the historic speech the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama, gave Aug. 28, 2013 at the 50th Anniversary March on Washington for Jobs and Justice at the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his immortal “I Have A Dream” speech.
To the King family, who have sacrificed and inspired so much, to President Clinton, President Carter, Vice President Biden, Jill, fellow Americans, five decades ago today, Americans came to this honored place to lay claim to a promise made at our founding.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In 1963, almost 200 years after those words were set to paper, a full century after a great war was fought and emancipation proclaimed, that promise, those truths remained unmet. And so they came by the thousands, from every corner of our country — men and women, young and old, blacks who longed for freedom and whites who could no longer accept freedom for themselves while witnessing the subjugation of others. Across the land, congregations sent them off with food and with prayer. In the middle of the night, entire blocks of Harlem came out to wish them well.
With the few dollars they scrimped from their labor, some bought tickets and boarded buses, even if they couldn’t always sit where they wanted to sit. Those with less money hitchhiked, or walked. They were seamstresses, and steelworkers, and 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.
We rightly and best remember Dr. King’s soaring oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions, how he offered a salvation path for oppressed and oppressors alike. His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time.
But we would do well to recall that day itself also belonged to those ordinary people whose names never appeared in the history books, never got on TV.
Many had gone to segregated schools and sat at segregated lunch counters, had lived in towns where they couldn’t vote, in cities where their votes didn’t matter. There were couples in love who couldn’t marry, soldiers who fought for freedom abroad that they found denied to them at home. They had seen loved ones beaten and children fire- hosed. And they had every reason to lash out in anger or resign themselves to a bitter fate.
And yet they chose a different path. In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in with the moral force of nonviolence. Willingly, they went to jail to protest unjust laws, their cells swelling with the sound of freedom songs.
A lifetime of indignities had taught them that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us. They had learned through hard experience what Frederick Douglas once taught: that freedom is not given; it must be won through struggle and discipline, persistence and faith.
That was the spirit they brought here that day.
That was the spirit young people like John Lewis brought that day. That was the spirit that they carried with them like a torch back to their cities and their neighborhoods, that steady flame of conscience and courage that would sustain them through the campaigns to come, through boycotts and voter registration drives and smaller marches, far from the spotlight, through the loss of four little girls in Birmingham, the carnage of Edmund Pettus Bridge and the agony of Dallas, California, Memphis.
Through setbacks and heartbreaks and gnawing doubt, that flame of justice flickered and never died.
And because they kept marching, America changed. 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. (Applause.)
Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed. (Cheers, applause.)
Because they marched, America became more free and more fair, not just for African-Americans but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, for Catholics, Jews and Muslims, for gays, for Americans with disabilities.
America changed for you and for me.
And the entire world drew strength from that example, whether it be young people who watched from the other side of an Iron Curtain and would eventually tear down that wall, or the young people inside South Africa who would eventually end the scourge of apartheid. (Applause.) Those are the victories they won, with iron wills and hope in their hearts.
That is the transformation that they wrought with each step of their well-worn shoes. That’s the depth that I and millions of Americans owe those maids, those laborers, those porters, those secretaries — folks who could have run a company, maybe, if they had ever had a chance; those white students who put themselves in harm’s way even though they didn’t have to — (applause) — those Japanese- Americans who recalled their own interment, those Jewish Americans who had survived the Holocaust, people who could have given up and given in but kept on keeping on, knowing that weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning — (cheers, applause) — on the battlefield of justice, men and women without rank or wealth or title or fame would liberate us all, in ways that our children now take for granted as people of all colors and creeds live together and learn together and walk together, and fight alongside one another and love one another, and judge one another by the content of our character in this greatest nation on Earth.
To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed — that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years. (Applause.) Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Martin Luther King Jr., they did not die in vain. (Applause.) Their victory was great.
But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.
To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency. Whether it’s by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all in the criminal justice system and not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails — (applause) — it requires vigilance.