Fifty years after the March on Washington, President Barack Obama and dozens of other dignitaries paid tribute on Wednesday to Martin Luther King Jr., and those who participated in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it does not bend on its own,” Obama said in an echo of King’s words. “To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency.”
"Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education." – Martin Luther King Jr. #MLKDream50
— US Dept of Education (@usedgov) August 28, 2013
From the beginning of his term, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has maintained that education is the civil rights issue of our time, and several speakers during the celebration echoed this sentiment, including President Obama who described those who marched five decades ago:
And because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, the 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.
We can stand together for good jobs and just wages. With that courage, we can stand together for the right to health care in the richest nation on earth for every person. With that courage, we can stand together for the right of every child, from the corners of Anacostia to the hills of Appalachia, to get an education that stirs the mind and captures the spirit and prepares them for the world that awaits them. With that courage, we can feed the hungry and house the homeless and transform bleak wastelands of poverty into fields of commerce and promise.
America, I know the road will be long, but I know we can get there. Yes, we will stumble, but I know we’ll get back up. That’s how a movement happens. That’s how history bends. That’s how, when somebody is faint of heart, somebody else brings them along and says, come on, we’re marching.
President Bill Clinton noted that there is still work to be done to realize King’s Dream:
We cannot be disheartened by the forces of resistance to building a modern economy of good jobs and rising incomes or to rebuilding our education system to give our children a common core of knowledge necessary to ensure success or to give Americans of all ages access to affordable college and training programs. And we thank the president for his efforts in those regards.
Congresswoman Marcia Fudge (D-OH), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus:
Dr. King advocated for an America where everyone would be afforded their inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; a nation where there would be equal protection under the law; and a country where every person’s right to vote is protected. He dreamed of an America where every child has access to quality schools and an education that prepares them for their future. And he dreamed that we, as a nation, would walk together on the swift path towards justice.
Following his speech, President Obama spoke with Gwen Ifill on PBS NewsHour and said that he would continue to move forward on his economic agenda — including early childhood education — as a way forward in the struggle for equal rights. “I want to get early childhood education done because we know that’s the single most important thing we can do to increase upward mobility and opportunity for disadvantaged kids,” he said. “And, if Congress isn’t willing to pass a law, then I’ll start meeting with mayors, and we’ll start meeting with governors, and we’ll start meeting with non-for-profits and philanthropies.”
Earlier in the week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed students and civil rights leaders at the School Without Walls in Washington, D.C., and to students nationwide via live stream. He discussed education as the “civil rights issue of our time” and the progress the country has made toward providing all students an opportunity to succeed through high-quality education.
Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Education