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Area residents experience King anniversary with world leaders

POSTED: August 29, 2013 12:20 a.m.

Tens of thousands of Americans of all backgrounds and colors thronged to the National Mall to join the nation’s first black president and civil rights pioneers in marking the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

President Barack Obama urged the crowd to become modern-day protesters for economic justice and racial harmony.

“The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice but it doesn’t bend on its own,” Obama said, in an allusion to King’s own message.

His speech was the culmination of the daylong celebration of King’s legacy that began with marchers walking the streets of Washington behind a replica of the transit bus that Rosa Parks once rode when she refused to give up her seat to a white man.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a former freedom rider and the sole survivor of the main organizers of the 1963 march, recounted the civil rights struggles of his youth and exhorted America to “keep the faith and keep our eyes on the prize.”

Former Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell brought his daughter, Lilla Bleu, to the anniversary celebration. Rain slightly dampened their excitement, but they remained spectators to history as Obama and former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton spoke about the progress this country has made and the road still left to travel.

“You don’t get the chance to hear three presidents in one program,” Bell said. “So that was phenomenal.”

Bell said he saw the event as historic, but very partisan toward the left. He said he disagreed with Obama’s stated approach to job creation, but said he was glad the president acknowledged African-American unemployment was a concern.

“If everybody’s on the same page with what the problems are,” Bell said, “we can debate the means and the methods to get there. So I didn’t let that take away from what I thought was an overall very solemn and historic occasion.”

The throngs assembled in soggy weather at the Lincoln Memorial, where King, with soaring, rhythmic oratory and a steely countenance, had pleaded with Americans to come together to stomp out racism and create a land of opportunity for all.

Moments of the celebration moved Bell, especially Carter’s speech, the former commissioner said. Carter’s description of the segregated South reminded Bell of what his father faced in getting an education.

“It was very personal to hear those stories and to also have my daughter there, being able to hear that and also celebrate the fact that we had come a long way,” the Gainesville resident said.

Carter said King’s efforts had helped not just black Americans, but “in truth, he helped to free all people.”

Still, Carter listed a string of current events that he said would have spurred King to action in this day, including the proliferation of guns and stand-your-ground laws, a Supreme Court ruling striking down parts of the Voting Rights Act and high rates of joblessness among blacks.

The Supreme Court decision on voting rights was mentioned a lot during the day, Bell said. Republican presidents and the GOP should be given credit for supporting and extending the act’s provisions through the years, he said.

Also joining the day’s events were Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, daughter of Lyndon Johnson, the president who signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and Caroline Kennedy, daughter of former President John F. Kennedy.

Former President George W. Bush didn’t attend, but said in a statement Obama’s presidency reflects “the promise of America” and “will help us honor the man who inspired millions to redeem that promise.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

View more Civil Rights coverage at www.gainesvilletimes.com/civilrights


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