WASHINGTON, D.C., UNITED STATES (REUTERS) - Fifty years ago this month, the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the Washington Mall. It was an iconic moment which framed the struggle of African-Americans in the United Statesto break fully from the bonds of slavery in the previous century and achieve, at last, the economic and social freedoms enshrined in the constitution. But, 50 years on, the struggle remains unfinished and the dream of Dr. King is still the dream of the present generation of African-Americans.
On August 28, 1963, a crowd of more than 200,000 gathered to hear King's speech. The crowd was shoulder-to-shoulder and some opted for a viewing vantage in the pool stretching from the memorial and others from the branches of nearby trees. The events of that day will be commemorated later this month as U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks from those same steps, recalling the life and legacy of Dr. King.
During the late 1950's and early 1960's, Dr. King and other prominent civil rights leaders traveled from city to city, primarily in the racially segregated American south, leading marches, speaking in churches, and organizing acts of civil disobedience with the goal of gaining equality for all people.
Too often, peaceful civil rights protesters encountered tear gas, water cannons, and attack dogs at the hands of the police, and rocks and verbal barbs thrown by white segregationists and others not yet ready to accept a nation in which all persons are regarded equally.
The March on Washington is largely credited with leading to reforms in voting rights and other civil rights legislation that helped end segregation, make improvements in education, and reduce overt racism. The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to roll back portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that prohibited discrimination in voting, as well last month's acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin, have reignited calls for a modern-day civil rights movement.
Indeed, Dr. King's soaring oratory that day marked a turning point in the American civil rights movement, a moment which shifted the struggle from low gear to full throttle.
The recording of his oration, however, has since become closely guarded as the descendants of Dr. King -- his children and the governors of his estate -- maintain tight control over the public use of King's image and the sound of his voice.
Fifty years on, racial minorities in the United States have made significant economic, educational and social advances but the disparities are still too apparent.
In 2010, the average income for white Americans was twice that of African-Americans and Latino-Americans. When incorporating the equity of home ownership, the average wealth of a white American family is $632,000 compared to $98,000 for African-Americans and $110,000 for Latin-American families.
In the past half-century, African-Americans and Latinos-Americans have gained better access to educational opportunities that lead to higher paying jobs and greater social status. Yet, U.S Census Bureau statistics from 2010 show that 12 percent of white children under the age of 18 live in poverty, while 38 percent of African American children and 35 percent of Hispanic children live in families with incomes below the poverty level.
U.S. Representative John Lewis is the only surviving speaker from the March on Washington. At the time he was a student civil rights leader, the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
"We have made some progress. We have come a distance, but we still have a distance to go. We still have roads to travel. It was a march for jobs and freedom. There's hundreds and thousands and millions of our brothers and sisters without jobs 50 years later," Lewis said.
Gladys Mitchell, a long-time resident of Washington, heard Dr. King's speech and has never forgotten the power of that voice and the courage of conviction behind his words.
"When Dr. King spoke, I mean that was it! He was fantastic! I have never heard another person deliver the way he did it on that particular day 50 years ago," Mitchell said.
"It was really eye-awakening, heartwarming, especially when he went to say--, to talk about the red hills of Georgia, and how they was integrating--, but he was hoping would be integrated into, blacks would have equal opportunities as whites, and it was heartwarming for me, to see and to hear, and to have all of these different nationalities of people coming together," Williams said.
"The struggle is an ongoing struggle. It was a fight 50 years ago, and it is still a fight 50 years later. Many people now are able to register and to vote. We have elected a man of color as President of the United States of America. And some people today ask me whether the election of PresidentBarrack Obama is a fulfillment of Dr. King's dream. I say 'no, it's just a down payment.' We're not there yet. It's still too many people that have been left out and left behind," Lewis said.
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