Obama Pays Tribute to King, Urges Vigilance on Civil Rights

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Obama pays tribute to King, urges vigilance

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WASHINGTON - The country's first African-American president paid tribute Wednesday to its most revered civil rights hero, standing on the steps of the iconic Lincoln Memorial to urge Americans to continue fighting for equality and justice 50 years after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic "I have a dream" speech from the same spot.

"They did not die in vain; their victory was great," Barack Obama said of King and other slain civil rights leaders of the tumultuous 1960s as he delivered his address just after 3 p.m. on Wednesday, precisely the same time that King did on Aug. 28th a half-century ago.

"But we would dishonour those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn't bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency."

Obama's remarks capped a rainy day of events in the U.S. capital that began when as many as 100,000 people marched through the summer drizzle to the National Mall, an expanse of public parkland that links the Capitol building in the east to the Lincoln Memorial in the west.

When King made his famous speech, the South was still segregated, with separate restrooms and schools for blacks and whites.

It took two years until Lyndon Johnson -- who became president following the assassination of John F. Kennedy just three months after King's speech -- finally prevailed over Congress to sign the country's landmark Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act into law. King was assassinated three years after that, in 1968.

On Wednesday, Obama and his wife, Michelle, walked down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial past a cast-iron bell from a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala., where four black girls were killed by a bombing just three weeks after King made his speech.

Obama and many of the event's participants -- VIPs that included Oprah Winfrey, members of King's family, Caroline Kennedy and former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton -- noted that while King called for equality and justice for all in 1963, African-Americans and other minorities still face significant obstacles.

"Whether it's by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all in the criminal justice system and not simply as a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails, it requires vigilance," Obama said to applause from the crowd.

Civil right icon John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia who was the youngest speaker at King's March on Washington for Jobs and Equality, pointed out that illegal immigrants are currently "hiding in fear," that African-American men are incarcerated at higher rates per capita than any other demographic group, and that unemployment and homelessness continue to plague America.

"Fifty years later, we can ride anywhere we want to ride, we can stay where we want to stay, those signs that said white and coloured are gone, and you won't see them anymore except in a museum, in a book, or on a video," the 73-year-old Lewis said.

"But there are still invisible signs, barriers in the hearts of humankind that form a gulf between us . …