On the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, Martin Luther King’s only granddaughter, wearing a blue dress and holding a small stuffed animal, had a chat with President Barack Obama when he knelt in front of her after his speech on Aug. 28.
Yolanda Renee King was born in 2008. She honored the memory of certain other little girls when she rang the bell sent from Birmingham, Ala.’s 16th Street Baptist Church to the ceremony at Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. A white supremacist bombed it in September 1963, killing Addie Mae Collins, 14; Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14.
Yolanda’s America is much changed from the America of 1963, but not as changed as her grandparents would have wanted.
Obama said we dishonor the courage of those who sacrificed during the civil rights movement when we say that nothing has changed. He named some of the many martyrs of the movement to end segregation: King, Medgar Evers, shot in front of his family, and the three Freedom Riders James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. The three were murdered for challenging segregation on interstate buses in the Southern states in the early 1960s.
He remembered the many nameless Pullman train porters, maids, teachers, and steel workers, both black and white, who came to Washington to try to make America live up to its founding principles. Obama said they, as well as King, made it possible for him to be elected president.
Yet, much still needs to change for America to fulfill its promise, according to Obama.
Like King in 1963, Obama invoked the document at America’s heart, the Declaration of Independence. He and King both quoted it: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Both King, as a civil rights leader, and Obama, as president, said America must live up to those words.
Georgia’s John Lewis, a Freedom Rider-turned-congressman, recounted the civil rights struggles of his youth and exhorted Americans to “keep the faith and keep our eyes on the prize.”
The throngs assembled in soggy weather to hear Obama. It was the same place where King, with soaring, rhythmic oratory and a steely countenance, had pleaded with Americans to come together to stomp out racism and create a land of opportunity for all.
White and black, they came this time to recall history—and live it.
“My parents did their fair share and I feel like we have to keep the fight alive,” said Frantz Walker, a honey salesman from Baltimore who is black. “This is hands-on history.”
Kevin Keefe, a Navy lawyer who is white, said he still tears up when he hears King’s speech.
“What happened 50 years ago was huge,” he said, adding that there’s still progress to be made on economic inequality and other problems.
Two former presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, spoke of King’s legacy—and of problems still to overcome.
“This march, and that speech, changed America,” Clinton declared, remembering the impact on the world and himself as a young man.
“They opened minds, they melted hearts, and they moved millions—including a 17-year-old boy watching alone in his home in Arkansas,” referring to himself.
Carter said King’s efforts had helped not just black Americans, but “In truth, he helped to free all people.”
Still, Carter listed a string of current issues that he said would have spurred King to action in this day, including the proliferation of guns, a Supreme Court ruling striking down parts of the Voting Rights Act, and high rates of joblessness among blacks.
Associated Press contributed to this report