WASHINGTON — Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech on the National Mall, President Obama traveled to the same spot to tell Americans much of King's dream remains unfulfilled.
Obama took a moment to recognize the sight of an African-American president standing at the spot where five decades earlier hundreds of thousands gathered to demand equality under the law. But most of his speech focused on economic equality, a passion of the president's since before he took office and one he is currently working hard to help make part of his legacy.
"The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few," Obama said. "It's whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steel worker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran."
This has been a favorite subject of Obama's over the past few years, and even more so over the past month, which he has devoted to speeches focusing on expanding and strengthening the middle class. But on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of King's speech, the president was perhaps his most impassioned on the topic, pointing to the lasting racial divide in unemployment and income. At the same time, he placed blame on the political system in part for keeping a key part of King's agenda from coming to reality.
"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," Obama said. "That distant bureaucrats were taking their hard-earned dollars to benefit the welfare cheat or the illegal immigrant."
Obama also said a remaining political divide from 50 years ago has kept the problem from being solved.
"Racial politics could cut both ways," he said, "as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drown out by the language of recrimination."
Obama said the country is now at a crossroads similar to the one it found itself at 50 years ago.
"The good news is just as was true in 1963. We now have a choice," he said.
"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 few do very well while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking economic pie. That's one path," he said. "Or we can have the courage to change. The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history. We are masters of our fate."
Though the speech was mostly focused on Americans coming together to expand economic opportunity, Obama also called out Republican-led efforts to increase voting restrictions, which Obama said cut into the victories won by African-Americans in the 1960s. Obama said the fight for voting rights proves that the civil rights movement rolls on.
"To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency," Obama said. "Whether it's 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."