WASHINGTON (AP) — Barack Obama was 2 years old and growing up in Hawaii when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Fifty years later, the nation’s first black president will stand as the most high-profile example of the racial progress King espoused, delivering remarks Wednesday at a nationwide commemoration of the 1963 demonstration for jobs, economic justice and racial equality.
Obama believes his success in attaining the nation’s highest political office is a testament to the dedication of King and others, and that he would not be the current Oval Office occupant if it were not for their willingness to persevere through repeated imprisonments, bomb threats and blasts from billy clubs and fire hoses.
“When you are talking about Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington, you’re talking about one of the maybe five greatest speeches in American history,” Obama said in a radio interview Tuesday. “And the words that he spoke at that particular moment, with so much at stake, and the way in which he captured the hopes and dreams of an entire generation I think is unmatched.”
In tribute, Obama keeps a bust of King in the Oval Office and a framed copy of the program from that historic day when 250,000 people gathered for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Within five years, the man Obama would later identify as one of his idols was dead, assassinated in April 1968 outside of a motel room in Memphis, Tenn.
But King’s dream didn’t die with him. Many believe it came true in 2008 when Obama became the first black man Americans ever elected as their president.
“Tomorrow, just like 50 years ago, an African-American man will stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and speak about civil rights and justice. But afterward, he won’t visit the White House. He’ll go home to the White House,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday, speaking of his basketball buddy and boss. “That’s how far this country has come. A black president is a victory that few could have imagined 50 years ago.”
“He stands on the shoulders of Martin Luther King, and the sacrifices that King made that make a President Obama possible are deeply humbling to him,” said Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s senior advisers and a close family friend.
For Obama, the march is a “seminal event” and part of his generation’s “formative memory.” A half century after the march, he said, is a good time to reflect on how far the country has come and how far it still has to go, particularly after the Trayvon Martin shooting trial in Florida.
A jury’s decision to acquit neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in the 2012 fatal shooting of the unarmed, 17-year-old black teen outraged blacks across the country last month and reignited a nationwide discussion about the state of U.S. race relations. The response to the verdict also raised expectations for America’s black president to say something about the case.