MLK's dream inspires a new march (VIDEO)

Jack Sullivan, 9, and Cailan Smith, 8, ring a bell as a crowd gathered outside of Memphis city hall on Wednesday to take part in the Let Freedom Ring celebration hosted by the mayor to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Church bells rang out Wednesday at the National Cathedral and at sites nationwide to answer a call from one of the most important civil rights speeches in history to “let freedom ring.”

Jack Sullivan, 9, and Cailan Smith, 8, ring a bell as a crowd gathered outside of Memphis city hall on Wednesday to take part in the Let Freedom Ring celebration hosted by the mayor to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Church bells rang out Wednesday at the National Cathedral and at sites nationwide to answer a call from one of the most important civil rights speeches in history to “let freedom ring.” Photo by The Associated Press.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Standing on hallowed ground of the civil rights movement, President Barack Obama challenged new generations Wednesday to seize the cause of racial equality and honor the “glorious patriots” who marched a half century ago to the very steps from which Rev. Martin Luther King spoke during the March on Washington.

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President Obama speaks at March on Washington

In a moment rich with history and symbolism, tens of thousands of Americans of all backgrounds and colors thronged to the National Mall to join the nation’s first black president and civil rights pioneers in marking the 50th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Obama urged each of them to become a modern-day marcher for economic justice and racial harmony.

“The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice but it doesn’t bend on its own,” Obama said, in an allusion to King’s own message.

His speech was the culmination of a daylong celebration of King’s legacy that began with marchers walking the streets of Washington behind a replica of the transit bus that Rosa Parks once rode when she refused to give up her seat to a white man.

At precisely 3 p.m., members of the King family tolled a bell to echo King’s call 50 years earlier to “let freedom ring.” It was the same bell that once hung in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where four black girls were killed when a bomb planted by a white supremacist exploded in 1963.

Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a former freedom rider and the sole survivor of the main organizers of the 1963 march, recounted the civil rights struggles of his youth and exhorted American to “keep the faith and keep our eyes on the prize.”

The throngs assembled in soggy weather at the Lincoln Memorial, where King, with soaring, rhythmic oratory and a steely countenance, had pleaded with Americans to come together to stomp out racism and create a land of opportunity for all.

Two former presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, spoke of King’s legacy — and of problems still to overcome.

“This march, and that speech, changed America,” Clinton declared, remembering the impact on the world and himself as a young man. “They opened minds, they melted hearts and they moved millions — including a 17-year-old boy watching alone in his home in Arkansas.”

Carter said King’s efforts had helped not just black Americans, but “In truth, he helped to free all people.”

Still, Carter listed a string of current events that he said would have spurred King to action in this day, including the proliferation of guns and stand-your-ground laws, a Supreme Court ruling striking down parts of the Voting Rights Act, and high rates of joblessness among blacks.

Obama used his address to pay tribute to the marchers of 1963 and that era — the maids, laborers, students and more who came from ordinary ranks to engage “on the battlefield of justice” — and he implored Americans not to dismiss what they accomplished.

“To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest — as some sometimes do — that little has changed, that dishonors the courage, the sacrifice, of those who paid the price to march in those years,” Obama said.

“Their victory is great. But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete.”

King’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, just 5 when his father spoke at the Mall, spoke of a dream “not yet realized” in full.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do but none of us should be any ways tired,” he said. “Why? Because we’ve come much too far from where we started.”

Organizers of the rally broadened the focus well beyond racial issues, bringing speakers forward to address the environment, gay rights, the challenges facing the disabled and more. The performers, too, were an eclectic crowd, ranging from Maori haka dancers to LeAnn Rimes singing “Amazing Grace.”

Forest Whitaker told the crowd it was their “moment to join those silent heroes of the past.”

“You now have the responsibility to carry the torch.”

Slate gray skies gave way to sunshine briefly peeking from the clouds as the “Let Freedom Ring” commemoration unfolded. After that, an intermittent rain fell.

Obama spoke with a bit of a finger-wag at times, saying that “if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way.” He spoke of “self-defeating riots,” recriminations, times when “the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.”

But the president said that though progress stalled at times, “the good news is, just as was true in 1963, we now have a choice.”

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