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Obama: Because they marched, America changed

President Barack Obama (12102)
President Barack Obama Credit: White House

Heralding the long fight toward racial equality that many say hasn’t ended, President Barack Obama commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech Wednesday on the same steps the civil rights leader spoke from half a century ago.

“His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time,” Obama told a diverse crowd that gathered under gray skies and intermittent drizzle to attend the hours-long ceremony.

King, Obama said, “gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions,” hailing leaders who braved intimidation and violence in their fight for equal rights.

On that August day in 1963, when King and his fellow marchers attended what he labeled “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation,” few in that crowd could have imagined that half a century later, an African American president of the United States would mark the occasion with a speech in the same location.

And during his remarks from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Obama cast his own election to the Oval Office as a consequence of persistence and courage from leaders such as King.

“Because they kept marching, America changed,” Obama said. “Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed and, yes, eventually, the White House changed.”

While other, negative changes have forestalled the push toward racial harmony, Obama stressed Wednesday that the work of civil rights leaders had permanently changed the discourse between races in America.

“To dismiss the magnitude of this process, 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,” Obama said.

Adopting words from another of King’s speeches, Obama declared that “the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.”

Leaders speaking at Wednesday’s anniversary event, including Obama, stressed that income disparity, high unemployment and a shrinking middle class have slashed hopes for attaining equality for millions of Americans, although the president said those facts couldn’t erase the forward march of the civil rights movement.

“To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency,” he said, adding, “We will suffer the occasional setback, but we will win these fights. This country has changed too much.”

In an interview after the speech, Obama said he wished his policies had done more to improve the gap between those who have wealth and those who do not.

“It certainly weighs on me,” he told PBS. “In my first term, essentially, my job was to make sure, as you said, that the economy didn’t just completely collapse.”

Other speakers Wednesday marked the great progress toward King’s goal of racial accord, although many suggested that the dream was far from realized, specifically citing voter identification laws that critics say prevent African Americans from casting ballots, and the verdict in the closely watched Trayvon Martin murder trial.

“We have come a great distance in this country in the 50 years. But we still have a great distance to go before we fulfill the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.,” said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., adding that progress toward King’s goal could be marked by his own election to Congress.

“But there are still invisible signs, barriers in the hearts of humankind that form a gulf between us,” said Lewis, the only speaker from the 1963 march who also spoke Wednesday.

Before Obama addressed the throngs gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, civil rights leaders past and present remembered the decades-long movement to secure equal treatment and rights for African Americans.

CNN’s Joe Johns, Stacey Samuel, Athena Jones and Larry Lazo contributed to this report.

Kevin Liptak | CNN