A Call to Action: President Obama marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington

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From the Washington Post, Transcript of Obama’s speech (excerpts):

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.

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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.

And we'll suffer the occasional setback. But we will win these fights.
This country has changed too much. (Applause.) People of good will,
regardless of party, are too plentiful for those with ill will to change
history's currents. (Applause.)

* * *

This idea that — that one's liberty is linked to one's livelihood, that
the pursuit of happiness requires the dignity of work, the skills to
find work, decent pay, some measure of material security — this idea
was not new.

* * *

Dr. King explained that the goals of African-Americans were identical to
working people of all races: decent wages, fair working conditions,
livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures —
conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children
and respect in the community.

* * *

Yes, there have been examples of success within black America that
would have been unimaginable a half-century ago. But as has already been
noted, black unemployment has remained almost twice as high as white
employment (sic), Latino unemployment close behind. The gap in wealth
between races has not lessened, it's grown.

As President Clinton
indicated, the position of all working Americans, regardless of color,
has eroded, making the dream Dr. King described even more elusive.

For
over a decade, working Americans of all races have seen their wages and
incomes stagnate. Even as corporate profits soar, even as the pay of a
fortunate few explodes, inequality has steadily risen over the decades.
Upward mobility has become harder. In too many communities across this
country in cities and suburbs and rural hamlets, the shadow of poverty
casts a pall over our youth, their lives a fortress of substandard
schools and diminished prospects, inadequate health care and perennial
violence.

And so as we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the
measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely
how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether
this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard,
regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life. (Applause.)
The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are
cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system
provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white
steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran.
To win that battle, to answer that call — this remains our great
unfinished business.

We shouldn't fool ourselves. The task will not be easy. Since 1963 the economy's changed.

The twin forces of technology and global competition have subtracted
those jobs that once provided a foothold into the middle class, reduced
the bargaining power of American workers.

And our politics has
suffered. Entrenched interests — those who benefit from an unjust
status quo resisted any government efforts to give working families a
fair deal, marshaling an army of lobbyists and opinion makers to argue
that minimum wage increases or stronger labor laws or taxes on the
wealthy who could afford it just to fund crumbling schools — that all
these things violated sound economic principles.

We'd be told that
growing inequality was the price for a growing economy, a measure of
the free market — that greed was good and compassion ineffective, and
those without jobs or health care had only themselves to blame.

And then there were those elected officials who found it useful to
practice the old politics of division, doing their best to convince
middle-class Americans of a great untruth, that government was somehow
itself to blame for their growing economic insecurity — that distant
bureaucrats were taking their hard-earned dollars to benefit the welfare
cheat or the illegal immigrant.

* * *

But the good news is, just as was true in 1963, we now have a choice. We
can continue down our current path in which the gears of this great
democracy grind to a halt and our children accept a life of lower
expectations, where politics is a zero-sum game, where a few do very
well while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking
economic pie. That's one path. Or we can have the courage to change.

The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history, that we are masters of our fate.

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
.

And I believe that spirit is there, that true force inside each of
us. I see it when a white mother recognizes her own daughter in the face
of a poor black child. I see it when the black youth thinks of his own
grandfather in the dignified steps of an elderly white man. It's there
when the native born recognizing that striving spirit of a new
immigrant, when the interracial couple connects the pain of a gay couple
who were discriminated against and understands it as their own. That's
where courage comes from, when we turn not from each other or on each
other but towards one another, and we find that we do not walk alone.
That's where courage comes from. (Applause.)

And with that
courage, we can stand together for good jobs and just wages. With that
courage, we can stand together for the right to health care in the
richest nation on earth for every person. (Applause.) With that courage,
we can stand together for the right of every child, from the corners of
Anacostia to the hills of Appalachia, to get an education that stirs
the mind and captures the spirit and prepares them for the world that
awaits them. (Applause.) With that courage, we can feed the hungry and
house the homeless and transform bleak wastelands of poverty into fields
of commerce and promise.

America, I know the road will be long,
but I know we can get there. Yes, we will stumble, but I know we'll get
back up. That's how a movement happens. That's how history bends. That's
how, when somebody is faint of heart, somebody else brings them along
and says, come on, we're marching. (Cheers, applause.)

* * *

We might not face the same dangers as 1963, but the fierce urgency of
now remains. We may never duplicate the swelling crowds and dazzling
processions of that day so long ago, no one can match King's brilliance,
but the same flames that lit the heart of all who are willing to take a
first step for justice, I know that flame remains. (Applause.)

That tireless teacher who gets to class early and stays late and dips
into her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that every
child is her charge — she's marching. (Applause.) That successful
businessman who doesn't have to, but pays his workers a fair wage and
then offers a shot to a man, maybe an ex-con, who's down on his luck —
he's marching.

(Cheers, applause.) The mother who pours her love
into her daughter so that she grows up with the confidence to walk
through the same doors as anybody's son — she's marching. (Cheers,
applause.) The father who realizes the most important job he'll ever
have is raising his boy right, even if he didn't have a father,
especially if he didn't have a father at home — he's marching.
(Applause.) The battle-scarred veterans who devote themselves not only
to helping their fellow warriors stand again and walk again and run
again, but to keep serving their country when they come home — they are
marching. (Applause.) 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.
(Applause.)

And that's the lesson of our past, that's
the promise of tomorrow, that in the face of impossible odds, people who
love their country can change it
. And when millions of Americans of
every race and every region, every faith and every station can join
together in a spirit of brotherhood, then those mountains will be made
low, and those rough places will be made plain, and those crooked
places, they straighten out towards grace, and we will vindicate the
faith of those who sacrificed so much and live up to the true meaning of
our creed as one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and
justice for all. (Cheers, applause.)

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