Leaders gather 50 years after King's landmark address

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AFT President Randi Weingarten was among the many distinguished leaders who spoke before a large crowd at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 50 years to the day after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his history-changing "I Have a Dream" speech from the same location.

President Obama and former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as well as members of the King family and political, labor, civic and religious leaders, were on hand to mark the anniversary. The "Let Freedom Ring" celebration ended with a symbolic bell ringing at 3 p.m.—around the time King delivered his speech—with a bell that once hung at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., before the church was bombed in 1963.

"Leaders this day 50 years ago understood that the struggle for civil rights and racial equality is a struggle for good jobs and decent wages," Weingarten said. "They understood, as we do today, that public education is an economic necessity, an anchor of democracy and a fundamental right. So we celebrate today that we have become a country that believes in equality, and we recommit ourselves to be a country that acts on that belief.

"And that starts with reclaiming the promise of public education—not as it is today or was in the past, but as it can be to fulfill our collective responsibility to help all children succeed."

50th Anniversary of March On Washington participants

Clinton lamented the political gridlock that dominates the discourse today, but also noted the tremendous progress that has been made. "Yes, there remain racial inequalities, in employment income, health, wealth, incarceration, in the victims and perpetrators of violent crime. But we don't face beatings, lynchings and shootings for our political beliefs anymore," he said. "And I would respectfully suggest that Martin Luther King did not live and die to hear his heirs whine about political gridlock. It is time to stop complaining and put our shoulders against the stubborn gates holding the American people back."

Obama also called on the crowd to build on the legacy of those who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much in the name of freedom and equality. It would "dishonor those heroes" to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete, he said. "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 by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote, or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all and the criminal justice system is not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails, it requires vigilance."[Dan Gursky]

August 29, 2013