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Obama Echoes Martin Luther King Jr. On March Anniversary


Well, the last speaker today was President Obama. He delivered remarks from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where King gave his speech five decades ago.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We rightly and best remember Dr. King's soaring oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions, how he offered a salvation path for oppressed and oppressors alike.

BLOCK: And for more on the president's speech, we're joined by NPR's Brian Naylor, who is on the National Mall. And, Brian, there were echoes of that oratory to which the president referred there, the oratory, the rhetoric from Dr. King.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: That's right. I think in one sense, the president was trying to set a low bar for his speech today on the same steps that Dr. King spoke on 50 years ago. He said that speech was one of the top five in the nation's history, and said today that no one can match King's brilliance. But the president, as we've heard over the past five years or so, is not without his own oratorical skills.

He referred to the marchers who came to Washington 50 years ago - the ordinary folks, the steelworkers and seamstresses - those who did not get on TV, and he said that their heirs are still on the march today.

OBAMA: That tireless teacher who gets to class early and stays late and dips into her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that every child is her charge - she's marching.


OBAMA: That successful businessman who doesn't have to but pays his workers a fair wage and then offers a shot to a man, maybe an ex-con who is down on his luck - he's marching.


BLOCK: And, Brian, President Obama has been, at times, reluctant to talk about race as president. He is, of course, the first African-American President. How did he address the topic today?

NAYLOR: He gave credit, Melissa, to the marchers of 50 years ago, saying that they changed America; talking about ending segregation, ending segregation at lunch counters and in the workplace, and that they changed America for all Americans, not just African-Americans. And then he sort of gave a little tough love. He said that there were times when some of us, claiming to push for change, lost our way. He talked about assassinations setting off self-defeating riots and grievances against police brutality tipping into excuse making for criminal behavior.

Here's a bit more of what he said.

OBAMA: Racial politics could cut both ways, as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity - the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead - was too often framed as a mere desire for government support; as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.

All of that history is how progress stalled. That's how hope was diverted. It's how our country remained divided.

BLOCK: And, Brian, the president did seem to devote a fair amount of time in his speech to talk of economic injustice. He said that was part of the unfinished work of Dr. King.

NAYLOR: That's right. And he used the opportunity to talk about the inequality of wealth distribution, of issues like high unemployment among African-Americans and Latinos, substandard schools, coupled with the need for health care reform. Here's what he said.

OBAMA: So, as we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks could join the ranks of millionaires. It was whether this country would admit all people who are willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle class life.


NAYLOR: And clearly, Melissa, he feels that that fight continues. He talked about - in a nice echo of Dr. King's speech 50 years ago - he talked about the right of every child from the corners of Anacostia to the hills of Appalachia to get an education; and said that with that courage, we can feed the hungry, house the homeless and transform the bleak wastelands of poverty. He says I know the road will be long but I know that we can get there.

BLOCK: I was struck too, Brian, that he did extend it beyond the boundaries of this country. He talked about people taking a message from the Civil Rights Movement - those behind the Iron Curtain. He talked about people shrugging off apartheid in South Africa, too.

NAYLOR: That's right. Yeah, he did broaden the message. And well aware that despite there were tens of thousands of folks here on the Mall, that people around the world were watching this event just as they were watching Dr. King's speech 50 years ago.

BLOCK: OK, NPR's Brian Naylor on the National Mall. Brian, thank you so much.

NAYLOR: Thanks, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.