Clearly, the most powerful symbol of achievement — tangible evidence of advancement and potential of a people and a nation — was the sight of the first African American President standing at the podium where King delivered his transformative words. Barack Obama, our most prominent heir to the Dream, has said that day in 1963 served as a compass that directed his life to possibilities and the fact that ordinary folk can accomplish extraordinary things.
The President used his speech to rally our nation to address the “great unfinished business” of the March, achieving economic justice. He called on the nation to find the courage to come together “for good jobs and just wages… from the corners of Anacostia to the hills of Appalachia.”
“The men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract idea,” he told the cheering crowd. “They were there seeking jobs as well as justice. Not just the absence of oppression, but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?”
His words affirmed a common theme throughout the week’s activities: Civil rights advances — including his presidential milestone — must not obscure the March’s economic goals. The black unemployment rate at 13% remains almost twice as high as the rate for whites. Moreover, the Center of American Progress and Policy Link report that closing racial and ethnic gaps creates a more viable American economy: The gross domestic product–the total output of goods and services — would grow by an additional $1.2 trillion per year; federal, state and local tax revenues would increase by $192 billion; and 13 million people would be lifted out of poverty.
“The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few,” said Obama. “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.”