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Obama calls for greater opportunity on anniversary of King's march

President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the "Let Freedom Ring" ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall on Aug. 28, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama pushed for his plan to improve the fortunes of the middle class on Aug. 28 as he honored the marchers who fought for civil rights 50 years ago. He recalled how they powered their movement by coming together in a "coalition of conscience." He called for people to come together in the same way to fight for better economic opportunity today.

“In the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it,” Obama said.

The president spoke at a ceremony on the anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The 1963 protest became the most memorable moment of the civil rights movement. The first African-American president spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke there to describe his dream of racial equality. At the time, many black Americans still struggled just to vote.

Honors Marchers Of 1963

Obama’s remarks capped several days of events in Washington observing the anniversary. Thousands marched Saturday on the National Mall to call attention to current civil rights causes: gay and lesbian rights, voting rights and gun laws.

The commemoration Wednesday was a more solemn affair. Speakers included former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, Oprah Winfrey and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.. Lewis was the only speaker from the 1963 march.

The president addressed a crowd lined up along the reflecting pool and huddled under umbrellas on a drizzly summer day. Obama paid tribute to the 1963 marchers. He mentioned both King and “those ordinary people who names never appear in the history books.”

He noted that “no one can match King’s brilliance.” But he called on all citizens to keep up the fight for more opportunity. “The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice,” he said, quoting King. “But it doesn’t bend on its own.”

A Connection Between Obama And King

Obama has often cited King as an inspiration and a touchstone. The president’s speeches regularly quote King. The president has a bust of King and a copy of the program from the original march in the Oval Office. Obama took the oath of office this year using a Bible owned by King. The gestures have cemented a symbolic connection between the two most recognizable black leaders in U.S. history.

But Obama’s relationship with the civil rights movement and King’s memory and mission has not been simple. Obama's mother was white and his father was Kenyan. He has wrestled with this racial identity and his connection to the movement that defined a generation of black political life.

He has identified with the Joshua generation. This label is  given to the children of movement’s founders charged with carrying on the mission. But he has also criticized the civil rights movement, saying it is fractured.

Obama on Wednesday repeated some of that critique. Over the years, actual outrage over discrimination devolved into “excuse-making for criminal behavior,” Obama said. “What had once been a call for equality of opportunity … was too often framed as a mere desire for government support. As if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child.”

Pressing For Opportunity

Obama has been criticized for dodging direct conversations about race in America during his presidency. However, he has recently spoken more openly about the discrimination he sees in the criminal justice system, as well as unfairness in education and economics.

The president also has grappled publicly with living up to King’s teachings on nonviolence — to meet “physical force” with “soul force” — while he serves as commander in chief to the U.S. military.

As he spoke Wednesday, his cabinet and staff were weighing a missile strike against the government of Syria. The Middle Eastern country is believed to have killed hundreds with poison gas in Damascus suburbs a week ago.

White House officials have described the attack as a moral outrage. They suggested that a military response is justified.

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