WASHINGTON — Thousands of people gathered in downtown Washington on Aug. 28 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
King’s words remain with us today, said U.S. President Barack Obama, because they “belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time.”
The hours-long event, entitled “Let Freedom Ring,” celebrated half a century since the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place on Aug. 28, 1963. The march was a pivotal point in the U.S. civil-rights movement and was the backdrop for King’s speech.
“America changed for you and for me,” because of that march, Obama said, pointing to sweeping changes in the treatment of minorities in the United States over the past five decades.
He highlighted the work of both famous civil-rights leaders and “those ordinary people whose names never appeared in the history books” but who responded to segregation and discrimination with peaceful action.
“In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in with the moral force of nonviolence,” the president said.
“Willingly, they went to jail to protest unjust laws, their cells swelling with the sound of freedom songs. A lifetime of indignities had taught them that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us.”
Obama warned, however, that “we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete.” He pointed to the economic difficulties that have plagued many Americans in recent years, along with other indications of social injustice, including higher unemployment levels within minority communities, inequality and lack of social mobility for lower classes, poorly performing schools, insufficient health care and violence.
The “good news,” he said, is that “just as was true in 1963, we now have a choice.”
As a nation, “we are not trapped by the mistakes of history,” but can bring about the type of transformative change in the name of justice that “does not come from Washington but to Washington.”
This change, the president said, “has always been built on our willingness, we, the people, to take on the mantle of citizenship.”
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington also spoke to commemorate the anniversary of the civil-rights march, addressing participants at an interfaith prayer gathering.
In addition, the cardinal penned an article in the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, recognizing the historic anniversary and calling upon the faithful to honor the legacy of civil-rights leaders “by continuing their work.”
He noted that Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle, previous archbishop of Washington, had offered the invocation at the March on Washington in 1963 and led Catholics from across the diocese in the march.
Cardinal Wuerl highlighted several areas in which Catholics today can continue the “legacy reflective of the commitment of King.”
Within the Church, he said that he has “witnessed King’s vision of Americans praying and marching together for justice.”
“Each year at the March [for Life], rallies and Masses for Life, hundreds of thousands of people from across the country gather to pray and then march together in defense of the dignity of human life in all its stages,” he explained.
The effort to realize justice in the United States “also takes the form of providing educational opportunities for all children, but particularly for those who would otherwise be consigned to schools too often designated as ‘failing,’” the cardinal said.
Additionally, the drive to spread the Gospel “is why Catholic Charities programs and Catholic hospitals continue to bring Christ’s love and hope to those who need it regardless of race, religion, gender, nationality or sexual orientation,” he said, adding that this also explains “why we must continue to stand for the dignity of human life, for religious freedom and for justice for immigrants.”
People of faith “can never be relegated to just an hour inside church on Sunday,” Cardinal Wuerl stressed, urging Catholics “to ‘go out’ and bring Christ’s love and hope to our communities and our world.”