Fifty years to the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, President Obama today offered a tribute to his personal hero, while also imploring all Americans to remember that the work of the iconic civil rights leader remains unfinished.
"The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn't bend on its own," Obama said, as he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his historic remarks. "We'll suffer the occasional setback, but we will win these fights."
"Yes, we will stumble, but I know we'll get back up. That's how a movement happens. That's how history bends," Obama added. "That's how, when somebody is faint of heart, somebody else brings them along and says, 'Come on, we're marching.'"
Obama, who spoke on a muggy, rainy day in Washington to an estimated crowd of 20,000 -- far fewer than 200,000-plus who attended the March on Washington and witnessed King's "I Have a Dream" speech 50 years ago -- recalled that day in 1963.
"On a hot summer day, they assembled here in our nation's capitol, under the shadow of the great emancipator to offer testimony of injustice, to petition their government for redress, to awaken America's long slumbering conscience," he said.
"How he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions, how he offered a salvation path to oppressed and oppressors alike," he added. "We would do well to recall that that day itself also belonged to those ordinary people whose names never appeared in history books."
Acknowledging his own place in history, Obama praised King and the civil rights activists of his era.
"They kept marching," he said. "America changed."
"And yes," he added, "eventually, the White House changed."
Obama encouraged the continuation of the march today.
"Today, 50 years later, my friends, we are still crippled by practices and policies steeped in racial pride, hatred and hostility, some of which have us standing our ground rather than finding common ground," he said. "We might not face the same dangers as 1963, but the fierce urgency of now remains."
"Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day, that change does not come from Washington but to Washington, that change has always been built on our willingness -- we, the people -- to take on the mantle of citizenship, you are marching," he said.
During the last 50 years, he added, there were times of setback and times "when some of us, claiming to push for change, lost our way."
"The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots," he said. "Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. ... And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead, was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.
"All of that history is how progress stalled," he said. "That's how hope was diverted. It's how our country remained divided."
But today, he added, there is a second choice, a second path offering "the courage to change" and a lesson from the march, 50 years later.
"The march on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history, that we are masters of our fate," Obama said. "But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together. We'll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago."
For the nation's first African-American president, the much-anticipated speech carried with it immense symbolism and high stakes.
"Let me just say for the record right now, it won't be as good as the speech 50 years ago," Obama told radio host Tom Joyner in an interview Tuesday. "I just want to get that out there early. Because 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.
"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."
"All I can do on an occasion like this," Obama told Joyner, "is just to celebrate the accomplishments of all of those folks whose shoulders we stand on and then remind people that the work is still out there for us to do, and that we honor his speech but also, more importantly in many ways, the organization of the ordinary people who came out for that speech."
The president said he thinks King would be "amazed" by the progress that has been made, citing equal rights before the law and the thousands of African-American elected officials and CEOs. "I think he would say it was a glorious thing," he said.
"What he would also say, though, is that the march on Washington was about jobs and justice. And that when it comes to the economy, when it comes to inequality, when it comes to wealth, when it comes to the challenges that inner cities experience, he would say that we have not made as much progress as the civil and social progress that we've made," he said.
"It's not enough just to have a black president," he continued. "The question is, does the ordinary person, day-to-day, can they succeed. And we have not made as much progress as we need to on that, and that is something that I spend all my time thinking about, is how do we give opportunity to everybody so if they work hard they can make it in this country."
Obama often cites King as one of the people he most admires, even though he was just 2 when the civil rights icon delivered his famous speech.
The president keeps a bust of King in the Oval Office and has on display a framed copy of the program from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.