It is an honor to be here – among so many friends, distinguished civil rights leaders, Members of Congress, and fellow citizens who have fought, rallied, and organized – from the streets of this nation, to the halls of our Capitol – to advance the cause of justice.
Fifty years ago, Dr. King shared his dream with the world and described his vision for a society that offered, and delivered, the promise of equal justice under law. He assured his fellow citizens that this goal was within reach – so long as they kept faith with one another, and maintained the courage and commitment to work toward it. And he urged them to do just that. By calling for no more – and no less – than equal justice. By standing up for the civil rights to which everyone is entitled. And by speaking out – in the face of hatred and violence, in defiance of those who sought to turn them back with fire hoses, bullets, and bombs – for the dignity of a promise kept; the honor of a right redeemed; and the pursuit of a sacred truth that’s been woven through our history since this country’s earliest days: that all are created equal.
Those who marched on Washington in 1963 had taken a long and difficult road – from Montgomery, to Greensboro, to Birmingham; through Selma and Tuscaloosa. They marched – in spite of animosity, oppression, and brutality – because they believed in the greatness of what this nation could become and despaired of the founding promises not kept. Their focus, at that time, was the sacred and sadly unmet commitments of the American system as it applied to African Americans. As we gather today, 50 years later, their march – now our march – goes on. And our focus has broadened to include the cause of women, of Latinos, of Asian Americans, of lesbians, of gays, of people with disabilities, and of countless others across this country who still yearn for equality, opportunity, and fair treatment.
Dr. King’s indelible words helped to alter the course of history, and his work provided the foundation for much of the progress that has followed. But this morning, as we recommit ourselves to his quest for progress, we must note that in addition to Dr. King, we also stand on the shoulders of untold millions whose names may be lost to history, but whose stories – and contributions – must be remembered and treasured: surely those who stood on this Mall in the summer of 1963 – but we must also remember those who rode buses, sat at lunch counters, stood up to racist governments and governors, and, tragically, those who gave their lives. We must remember generations who carried themselves on a day to day basis with great dignity in the face of unspeakable injustice – sacrificing their own ambitions so that the opportunities of future generations would be assured. We must remember those who labored for wages that measured neither their worth nor their effort. We must remember those who served, and fought, and died wearing the uniform of a nation that they cared so much about but which did not reciprocate that devotion in equal measure.
Each of these brave men and women displayed a profound love of country that must always be appreciated. It is to these people that we owe the greatest debt – Americans of all races, genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and backgrounds who risked everything in order that their fellow citizens, and their children, might truly be free. It is to them that we must all say – in the most profound way – “thank you.” It is to them that I dedicate my words this morning. And it is in their honor that I pledge my continuing service, in the hope that it might pay worthy tribute to their sacrifices.
But today's observance is about far more than reflecting on our past. Today’s March is also about committing to shape the future we will share – a future that preserves the progress, and builds on the achievements, that have led us to this moment. Today, we look to the work that remains unfinished, and make note of our nation's shortcomings, not because we wish to dwell on imperfection – but because, as those who came before us, we love this great country. We want this nation to be all that it was designed to be – and all that it can become. We recognize that we are forever bound to one another and that we stand united by the work that lies ahead – and by the journey that still stretches before us.
This morning, we affirm that this struggle must, and will, go on in the cause of our nation’s quest for justice – until every eligible American has the chance to exercise his or her right to vote, unencumbered by discriminatory or unneeded procedures, rules, or practices. It must go on until our criminal justice system can ensure that all are treated equally and fairly in the eyes of the law. And it must go on until every action we take reflects our values and that which is best about us. It must go on until those now living, and generations yet to be born, can be assured the rights and opportunities that have been too long denied to too many.
The America envisioned at this site 50 years ago – the “beloved community” – has not yet been realized. But half a century after the March, and 150 years after Emancipation, it is finally within our grasp. Together – through determined effort; through a willingness to confront corrosive forces tied to special interests rather than the common good; and through devotion to our founding documents – I know that, in the 21st century, we will see an America that is more perfect and more fair. I thank each of you for your continuing dedication to this cause, and your leadership of this important work. And I look forward to all that we will surely achieve together – by advancing the cause that remains our common pursuit. By preserving the legacy we are called to extend. And by helping to realize the dream that still guides our every step.