Barack Obama Forty-Fourth President
(2009 to 2017)
Remarks at Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument Dedication
The National Mall - Washington, D.C. - October 16, 2011
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much.
(Applause.) Thank you. (Applause.) Please be seated.
earthquake and a hurricane may have delayed this day, but this is a
day that would not be denied.
For this day, we celebrate Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s return to the National Mall. In this
place, he will stand for all time, among monuments to those who
fathered this nation and those who defended it; a black preacher
with no official rank or title who somehow gave voice to our deepest
dreams and our most lasting ideals, a man who stirred our conscience
and thereby helped make our union more perfect.
And Dr. King
would be the first to remind us that this memorial is not for him
alone. The movement of which he was a part depended on an entire
generation of leaders. Many are here today, and for their service
and their sacrifice, we owe them our everlasting gratitude. This is
a monument to your collective achievement. (Applause.)
giants of the civil rights movement –- like Rosa Parks and Dorothy
Height, Benjamin Hooks, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth –- they've been
taken from us these past few years. This monument attests to their
strength and their courage, and while we miss them dearly, we know
they rest in a better place.
And finally, there are the
multitudes of men and women whose names never appear in the history
books –- those who marched and those who sang, those who sat in and
those who stood firm, those who organized and those who mobilized –-
all those men and women who through countless acts of quiet heroism
helped bring about changes few thought were even possible. “By the
thousands,” said Dr. King, “faceless, anonymous, relentless young
people, black and white...have taken our whole nation back to those
great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers
in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of
Independence.” To those men and women, to those foot soldiers for
justice, know that this monument is yours, as well.
half a century has passed since that historic March on Washington, a
day when thousands upon thousands gathered for jobs and for freedom.
That is what our schoolchildren remember best when they think of Dr.
King -– his booming voice across this Mall, calling on America to
make freedom a reality for all of God's children, prophesizing of a
day when the jangling discord of our nation would be transformed
into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
It is right that we
honor that march, that we lift up Dr. King's “I Have a Dream” speech
–- for without that shining moment, without Dr. King's glorious
words, we might not have had the courage to come as far as we have.
Because of that hopeful vision, because of Dr. King's moral
imagination, barricades began to fall and bigotry began to fade. New
doors of opportunity swung open for an entire generation. Yes, laws
changed, but hearts and minds changed, as well.
Look at the
faces here around you, and you see an America that is more fair and
more free and more just than the one Dr. King addressed that day. We
are right to savor that slow but certain progress -– progress that's
expressed itself in a million ways, large and small, across this
nation every single day, as people of all colors and creeds live
together, and work together, and fight alongside one another, and
learn together, and build together, and love one another.
it is right for us to celebrate today Dr. King's dream and his
vision of unity. And yet it is also important on this day to remind
ourselves that such progress did not come easily; that Dr. King's
faith was hard-won; that it sprung out of a harsh reality and some
It is right for us to celebrate Dr.
King's marvelous oratory, but it is worth remembering that progress
did not come from words alone. Progress was hard. Progress was
purchased through enduring the smack of billy clubs and the blast of
fire hoses. It was bought with days in jail cells and nights of bomb
threats. For every victory during the height of the civil rights
movement, there were setbacks and there were defeats.
forget now, but during his life, Dr. King wasn't always considered a
unifying figure. Even after rising to prominence, even after winning
the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King was vilified by many, denounced as a
rabble rouser and an agitator, a communist and a radical. He was
even attacked by his own people, by those who felt he was going too
fast or those who felt he was going too slow; by those who felt he
shouldn't meddle in issues like the Vietnam War or the rights of
union workers. We know from his own testimony the doubts and the
pain this caused him, and that the controversy that would swirl
around his actions would last until the fateful day he died.
I raise all this because nearly 50 years after the March on
Washington, our work, Dr. King's work, is not yet complete. We
gather here at a moment of great challenge and great change. In the
first decade of this new century, we have been tested by war and by
tragedy; by an economic crisis and its aftermath that has left
millions out of work, and poverty on the rise, and millions more
just struggling to get by. Indeed, even before this crisis struck,
we had endured a decade of rising inequality and stagnant wages. In
too many troubled neighborhoods across the country, the conditions
of our poorest citizens appear little changed from what existed 50
years ago -– neighborhoods with underfunded schools and broken-down
slums, inadequate health care, constant violence, neighborhoods in
which too many young people grow up with little hope and few
prospects for the future.
Our work is not done. And so on
this day, in which we celebrate a man and a movement that did so
much for this country, let us draw strength from those earlier
struggles. First and foremost, let us remember that change has never
been quick. Change has never been simple, or without controversy.
Change depends on persistence. Change requires determination. It
took a full decade before the moral guidance of Brown v. Board of
Education was translated into the enforcement measures of the Civil
Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but those 10 long years did
not lead Dr. King to give up. He kept on pushing, he kept on
speaking, he kept on marching until change finally came. (Applause.)
And then when, even after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting
Rights Act passed, African Americans still found themselves trapped
in pockets of poverty across the country, Dr. King didn't say those
laws were a failure; he didn't say this is too hard; he didn't say,
let's settle for what we got and go home. Instead he said, let's
take those victories and broaden our mission to achieve not just
civil and political equality but also economic justice; let's fight
for a living wage and better schools and jobs for all who are
willing to work. In other words, when met with hardship, when
confronting disappointment, Dr. King refused to accept what he
called the “isness” of today. He kept pushing towards the “oughtness”
And so, as we think about all the work that we
must do –- rebuilding an economy that can compete on a global stage,
and fixing our schools so that every child -- not just some, but
every child -- gets a world-class education, and making sure that
our health care system is affordable and accessible to all, and that
our economic system is one in which everybody gets a fair shake and
everybody does their fair share, let us not be trapped by what is.
(Applause.) We can't be discouraged by what is. We've got to keep
pushing for what ought to be, the America we ought to leave to our
children, mindful that the hardships we face are nothing compared to
those Dr. King and his fellow marchers faced 50 years ago, and that
if we maintain our faith, in ourselves and in the possibilities of
this nation, there is no challenge we cannot surmount.
And just as we draw strength from Dr. King's
struggles, so must we draw inspiration from his constant insistence
on the oneness of man; the belief in his words that “we are caught
in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of
destiny.” It was that insistence, rooted in his Christian faith,
that led him to tell a group of angry young protesters, “I love you
as I love my own children,” even as one threw a rock that glanced
off his neck.
It was that insistence, that belief that God
resides in each of us, from the high to the low, in the oppressor
and the oppressed, that convinced him that people and systems could
change. It fortified his belief in non-violence. It permitted him to
place his faith in a government that had fallen short of its ideals.
It led him to see his charge not only as freeing black America from
the shackles of discrimination, but also freeing many Americans from
their own prejudices, and freeing Americans of every color from the
depredations of poverty.
And so at this moment, when our
politics appear so sharply polarized, and faith in our institutions
so greatly diminished, we need more than ever to take heed of Dr.
King's teachings. He calls on us to stand in the other person's
shoes; to see through their eyes; to understand their pain. He tells
us that we have a duty to fight against poverty, even if we are well
off; to care about the child in the decrepit school even if our own
children are doing fine; to show compassion toward the immigrant
family, with the knowledge that most of us are only a few
generations removed from similar hardships. (Applause.)
say that we are bound together as one people, and must constantly
strive to see ourselves in one another, is not to argue for a false
unity that papers over our differences and ratifies an unjust status
quo. As was true 50 years ago, as has been true throughout human
history, those with power and privilege will often decry any call
for change as “divisive.” They'll say any challenge to the existing
arrangements are unwise and destabilizing. Dr. King understood that
peace without justice was no peace at all; that aligning our reality
with our ideals often requires the speaking of uncomfortable truths
and the creative tension of non-violent protest.
But he also
understood that to bring about true and lasting change, there must
be the possibility of reconciliation; that any social movement has
to channel this tension through the spirit of love and mutuality.
If he were alive today, I believe he would remind us that
the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall
Street without demonizing all who work there; that the businessman
can enter tough negotiations with his company's union without
vilifying the right to collectively bargain. He would want us to
know we can argue fiercely about the proper size and role of
government without questioning each other's love for this country --
(applause) -- with the knowledge that in this democracy, government
is no distant object but is rather an expression of our common
commitments to one another. He would call on us to assume the best
in each other rather than the worst, and challenge one another in
ways that ultimately heal rather than wound.
In the end,
that's what I hope my daughters take away from this monument. I want
them to come away from here with a faith in what they can accomplish
when they are determined and working for a righteous cause. I want
them to come away from here with a faith in other people and a faith
in a benevolent God. This sculpture, massive and iconic as it is,
will remind them of Dr. King's strength, but to see him only as
larger than life would do a disservice to what he taught us about
ourselves. He would want them to know that he had setbacks, because
they will have setbacks. He would want them to know that he had
doubts, because they will have doubts. He would want them to know
that he was flawed, because all of us have flaws.
precisely because Dr. King was a man of flesh and blood and not a
figure of stone that he inspires us so. His life, his story, tells
us that change can come if you don't give up. He would not give up,
no matter how long it took, because in the smallest hamlets and the
darkest slums, he had witnessed the highest reaches of the human
spirit; because in those moments when the struggle seemed most
hopeless, he had seen men and women and children conquer their fear;
because he had seen hills and mountains made low and rough places
made plain, and the crooked places made straight and God make a way
out of no way.
And that is why we honor this man –- because
he had faith in us. And that is why he belongs on this Mall -–
because he saw what we might become. That is why Dr. King was so
quintessentially American -- because for all the hardships we've
endured, for all our sometimes tragic history, ours is a story of
optimism and achievement and constant striving that is unique upon
this Earth. And that is why the rest of the world still looks to us
to lead. This is a country where ordinary people find in their
hearts the courage to do extraordinary things; the courage to stand
up in the face of the fiercest resistance and despair and say this
is wrong, and this is right; we will not settle for what the cynics
tell us we have to accept and we will reach again and again, no
matter the odds, for what we know is possible.
That is the
conviction we must carry now in our hearts. (Applause.) As tough as
times may be, I know we will overcome. I know there are better days
ahead. I know this because of the man towering over us. I know this
because all he and his generation endured -- we are here today in a
country that dedicated a monument to that legacy.
with our eyes on the horizon and our faith squarely placed in one
another, let us keep striving; let us keep struggling; let us keep
climbing toward that promised land of a nation and a world that is
more fair, and more just, and more equal for every single child of
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United
States of America. (Applause.)