LANHAM, Md. (CBSDC/AP) — President Barack Obama claimed his place in Martin Luther King’s 50-year-old dream, holding himself up as a symbol of the change King envisioned. But he also pointed to the nation’s lingering economic disparities as evidence that King’s hopes remain unfulfilled.
Obama spoke at the Lincoln Memorial on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, Wednesday.
The president roused the crowd after church bells rang out at the National Cathedral and nationwide to answer a call from one of the most important civil rights speeches in history to “let freedom ring.”
Organizers said people at more than 300 sites in nearly every state were ringing their bells to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s Aug. 28, 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.
At the National Cathedral in Washington, the central bell tower played “Lift Every Voice and Sing” from the carillon. The bells rang for about 15 minutes to mark the moment when the speech was delivered.
“I remember 50 years ago: the marching, the throngs of people, the speech, the energy,” said Party Mason, 69, of Bethesda, Md., who was one of about two dozen people who gathered at the cathedral. “It was amazing, just amazing.”
Commemorations were taking place from Georgia to the far reaches of Alaska, where participants rang cow bells along with church bells in Juneau.
Many of the commemorations were in sync with the hour when King gave his speech, 3 p.m. EDT, though some churches planned to ring their bells at 3 p.m. local time.
As King was wrapping up his speech at the Lincoln Memorial, he quoted from the patriotic song, “My Country ’tis of Thee.”
King implored his audience to “let freedom ring” from the hilltops and mountains of every state in the nation, some of which he cited by name in his speech.
“When we allow freedom to ring — when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last, great God almighty, we are free at last,” King said in closing.
One of the places cited in King’s speech was Georgia’s Stone Mountain, a granite outcropping east of Atlanta. It was a loaded reference. The park is a memorial to the Confederacy, including a 17,000-square-foot sculpture of three Confederate leaders carved into the mountainside itself. The Ku Klux Klan held rallies there during the 20th century. Now it’s a favorite hiking destination for families white and black.
On Wednesday, about 30 children and adults hiked up the mountain to join a commemoration. At the summit, participants played a recording of King’s speech and sang “We Shall Overcome,” a spiritual favored by civil rights marchers. Answering King’s call, they rang bells from the peak.
One hiker, Gail Scotton Baylor, 58, recalled watching King’s speech on a black-and-white TV from her family’s home in High Point, N.C. As a child, she remembered watching white children eat ice cream in a parlor while she and other black children were served at a side door. She remembered segregated water fountains and bathrooms. She recalled the dejected look on her father’s face when a restaurant refused to let him buy hamburgers for his family because he was black.
“I do remember Dr. Martin Luther King saying, ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last,’ and hearing all these people yelling and screaming. And I knew, I knew this was a very important day as a little girl,” she said. “And I felt like something good was happening — that something good was going to happen for us as a people, black people. Because even as a child, I knew that something was wrong.”
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