U.S. President Barack Obama says that Martin Luther King, Jr's vision of an America free from inequality has been partially, but not fully, realized.
He joined thousands of Americans of all races on the National Mall in Washington on August 28 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King's iconic "I Have A Dream" speech and the 1963 March on Washington.
"Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, a voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else's laundry or shining somebody else's shoes. Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and yes, eventually the White House changed," Obama told the crowd.
On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the first black U.S. president said the civil rights leader's words "belonged to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time."
Obama joined a host of speakers in calling for "constant vigilance, not complacency" to keep the dream alive.
He said courage reminiscent of 1963 would be needed to tackle unequal economic opportunities, immigration reform, discrimination against LGBT persons, and political gridlock.
'Tremendous Agenda Ahead Of Us'
Marchers began their day by walking the rainy streets of the U.S. capital behind a replica of the bus that civil rights icon Rosa Parks once rode when she refused to give up her seat to a white man.
On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the site of King's speech in 1963, a packed roster of speakers, ranging from civil rights activists to entertainers to former U.S. presidents passionately addressed the crowd.
While the speakers reflected on the civil rights progress made in the United States since King's famous oration, nearly all, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, urged a continued fight against racial and other inequalities that remain.
"I think we all know how Dr. King would have reacted to have more than 835,000 African-American men in prison, five times as many as when I left office, and with one-third of all African-American males being destined to be in prison in their lifetimes," Carter said. "Well, there's a tremendous agenda ahead of us."
Congressman John Lewis (Democrat-Georgia), the only surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington that culminated in King's speech, hailed the fact that "whites only" and "colored only" signs had been relegated to the history books.
But he said, "The scars and stains of racism remain deeply embedded in American society."
President Bill Clinton, who followed Carter, was among many speakers to criticize a recent ruling by the Supreme Court that effectively erased a key antidiscrimination provision of the Voting Rights Act.
Others railed against gun violence, lack of rights for immigrants, inequalities facing LGBT persons, and other pressing social issues.
'Let Freedom Ring'
Bells rang across the country at more than 100 sites at approximately the same time. King ended his call for racial and economic justice with the words "let freedom ring."
The 1963 speech, in which the African-American preacher and rights activist articulated his vision of a country free from racial inequities, was a watershed moment for civil rights in the United States. It is also considered one of the most memorable and influential calls for social justice in history.
"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal,'" King said.
"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters from the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.
The speech would also inspire generations of activists around the world to pursue nonviolent resistance, as King called for "meeting physical force with soul force."
It was later revealed that the 34-year-old had actually departed from his prepared text to share his famous vision.
'Meeting The Needs Of Today'
King's oration came at the conclusion of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march drew 250,000 people of all races to the U.S. capital at the height of the country's sometimes bloody civil rights struggle.
The events of August 28, 1963, would spur passage of landmark civil- and voting-rights legislation in the following years.
King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He was assassinated in 1968.
Organizers of the 2013 march said their goal was to commemorate the events of 50 years ago while urging progress on current pressing social issues, such as persisting racial inequality, immigration reform, and gay rights.
A march held in Washington on August 24, ahead of the official commemoration, also featured advocates for those and other causes.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, an activist who attended the 1963 march, is currently the District of Columbia's delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.
"The movement remains relevant because it has evolved to meet the needs of the day, and the needs of the day for African-Americans are to achieve relative parity with other Americans. We're nowhere near that," she told Voice of America.
"We are much further along as a result of the work of the civil rights movement, Dr. King, and all the rest, but the reason this civil rights movement still has such resonance among the American people is because of the distance still to go, not the distance we have come."
While African-Americans have seen significant advances in education and political power, black unemployment in the United States is about twice that for whites -- the same as 50 years ago. Studies show that discrimination is partially responsible for the gap.
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that almost half of respondents believe "a lot more" needs to be done to achieve a society free of racism.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters