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50 years later: Great strides made, but Dream not entirely realized

Former Presidents Jimmy Carter Bill Clintjoined President Barack ObamLincoln Memorial Wednesday Aug. 28 2013.  |   Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty

Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton joined President Barack Obama at the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013. | Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

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Updated: September 30, 2013 7:45AM



WASHINGTON — Fifty years ago a young John Lewis delivered a speech at the March on Washington and on Wednesday Lewis — now a Democratic member of Congress from Georgia — returned to those same steps on the Lincoln Memorial to report that “the scars and stains of racism still remain deeply embedded in American society.”

The 50th anniversary of the march — where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have A Dream” speech — was celebrated here in a weeklong series of events, capped with a closing commemoration ceremony at the memorial to President Abraham Lincoln featuring three men who owed their presidential elections to the civil rights movement.

Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation 150 years ago — King delivered his famous speech to spur the quest for racial equality in 1963 — and on Wednesday the common theme of the speakers was of progress made — and needed change that remains.

Thousands of people packed the sides of the Reflecting Pool — enduring the drizzle on the overcast day — as the tribute unfolded. Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow — two thirds of Peter, Paul and Mary —sang “Blowin’ In the Wind,” just as the folksingers did in the same place 50 years ago, sadly without Mary, who died in 2009.

On Wednesday, they were joined by the parents of Trayvon Martin, who sang with them the famous refrain of the Bob Dylan song: “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

There remains — 50 years later — a struggle for answers to racism in our society, even as the speakers celebrated the many advancements in race relations, culminating in the election and re-election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president.

The slaying of Martin and the acquittal of his shooter, George Zimmerman; the erosion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act signed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson; joblessness among African Americans; the wage gap between blacks and whites; the prison gap (with more blacks than whites behind bars) were highlighted in one way or another by many speakers.

That massive progress has been made was not ignored.

As Lewis noted, “Fifty years later we can ride anywhere we want to ride, we can stay where we want to stay. Those signs that said ‘white’ and ‘colored’ are gone. And you won’t see them anymore — except in a museum, in a book, on a video,” said Lewis.

“But there are still invisible signs buried in the hearts in humankind that form a gulf between us. Too many of us still believe our differences define us instead of the divine spark that runs through all of human creation,” he said.

For many reasons, there were no Republican speakers — and every speaker was a Democrat or allied with Democrats, making the event partisan in tone, if not intent. Washington is a partisan place — highly polarized right now — and the commemoration reflected that reality.

The powerful visual image of the day came when Obama, with first lady Michelle, emerged from near the 19-foot statue of Lincoln, joined by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

“I realize that most people know that it’s highly unlikely that any of us three over on my right would have served in the White House or be on this platform had it not been for Martin Luther King Jr. and his movement and his crusade for civil rights,” Carter said.

Between Obama, Clinton and Carter, none delivered a stemwinder that came close to King’s memorable rhetoric.

Obama has long acknowledged that his election was the result of those who came before him. On March 5, 2007, at the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, Ala. — during his presidential campaign — Obama spoke about being a member of the “Joshua Generation,” carried on the shoulders of the activists who came before him.

Indeed, the speech Obama the candidate made that day in Selma used a refrain that Obama the president recycled on Wednesday. In 2007 Obama said of the civil rights pioneers: “It’s because they marched that we elected councilmen, congressmen. . . . It is because they marched that I stand before you here today.”

On Wednesday, Obama, drawing the timeline from King and Lewis to the present, said, “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. Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed.

“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.”

But not enough. Not yet.

Email: lsweet@suntimes.com

Twitter: @lynnsweet



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