Watch live coverage of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington and his iconic speech.
NBC's Lester Holt anchors from the Lincoln Memorial.
A day-long celebration of the legacy of Martin Luther King has culminated in an appeal from President Barack Obama. He urged the tens of thousands who gathered today on the National Mall to become modern-day marchers for economic justice and racial harmony.
Obama spoke from the spot where, 50 years ago today, King pleaded with Americans to come together to stomp out racism and create a land of opportunity for all.
Former President Bill Clinton recalled the impact of King's words 50 years ago. Clinton told the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial that the speech "moved millions -- including a 17-year-old boy watching alone in his home in Arkansas." And former President Jimmy Carter said King's efforts had helped not just black Americans -- but that he "helped to free all people."
Obama joined members of King's family to ring a bell that hung in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., before the church was bombed in 1963. That was just weeks after King's famous speech. Church bells rang out nationwide, to answer a call from King to "let freedom ring."
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
President Barack Obama is claiming his place in Martin Luther King's 50-year-old dream, holding himself up as a symbol of the change King envisioned. But he also pointed to the nation's lingering economic disparities as evidence that King's hopes remain unfulfilled.
Obama spoke at Lincoln Memorial Wednesday on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. With Biblical references and the cadences of a preacher, Obama used the refrain, quote, "because they marched," as he recited the achievements of the civil rights movement.
Laws changed, legislatures changed and even the White House changed, Obama said. But he says income inequality, troubled inner cities and stagnant wages amid growing corporate profits show challenges that remain.
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The final refrain of Martin Luther King Jr.'s most famous speech will echo around the world on Wednesday as bells from churches, schools and historical monuments "let freedom ring" in celebration of a powerful moment in civil rights history.
Organizers said people at more than 300 sites in nearly every state will ring their bells to commemorate King's Aug. 28, 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. Commemorations are planned from the site of the speech in Washington to the far reaches of Alaska, where participants plan to ring cow bells along with church bells in Juneau.
Many of the commemorations will be in synch with the hour when King gave his speech, 3 p.m. EDT, though some churches plan to ring their bells at 3 p.m. local time.
As King was wrapping up his speech at the Lincoln Memorial, he quoted from the patriotic song, "My Country 'tis of Thee."
King implored his audience to "let freedom ring" from the hilltops and mountains of every state in the nation, some of which he cited by name in his speech.
"When we allow freedom to ring - when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last, great God almighty, we are free at last," King said in closing.
On Wednesday, bells will answer his call from each of the specific states King named, as well as at other sites around the nation and the world. At the Lincoln Memorial, President Barack Obama and former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter will join members of the King family and Georgia Rep. John Lewis, who also spoke at the March on Washington, in ringing a bell that hung in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., before the church was bombed in 1963, organizers said.
International commemorations will be held at London's Trafalgar Square, as well as in the nations of Japan, Switzerland, Nepal and Liberia. London Mayor Boris Johnson has said King's speech resonates around the world and continues to inspire people as one of the great pieces of oratory.
"The response to our call to commemorate the March on Washington and my father's 'I Have a Dream' speech has been overwhelming," King's daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, said in a written statement.
Some of the sites that will host ceremonies are symbolic, such as the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kan., a monument to the landmark Supreme Court case that outlawed segregated schools in 1954.
Bells will also be rung at Lookout Mountain in Tennessee and Stone Mountain in Georgia, a site with a Confederate memorial that King referenced in his speech. At Stone Mountain, a group of mostly black school children are planning a hike.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker's office planned to join the commemorations by ringing a "virtual bell" online. Meanwhile in Baltimore, a performer reenacted King's "Dream" speech at City Hall.
In the nation's capital, numerous organizations and churches will ring their bells at 3 p.m., including the Smithsonian Institution on the National Mall. Washington National Cathedral will play a series of tunes and spirituals on its carillon from the church's central bell tower, including "Lift Every Voice and Sing," ''Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," ''Amazing Grace," ''We Shall Overcome" and "My Country 'tis of Thee."
The Very Rev. Gary Hall, the cathedral's dean, said bell ringing is a symbol of freedom in the nation's history and that many churches are trying to answer King's call to be faithful to the roots of the civil rights movement.
"It's a kind of proclamation of our aspirations for the expansion of freedom for all people," he said. "It's always important to remember that the civil rights movement started largely as a church movement. ... It was essentially a group of black clergy with some white allies."
King preached his final Sunday sermon at the National Cathedral in 1968 before traveling on to Memphis, Tenn., where he was assassinated. King had been turning his attention more toward economic inequalities with his Poor People's Campaign, moving beyond solely racial issues to talk about all poor people and high unemployment.
"My feeling is that 50 years later, we need to look at ourselves and our own diversity and our own need to be more open and inclusive and diverse than we have been historically," Hall said. The anniversary is a reminder, he said, "of what a powerful moment that march was in American history and how it really calls us to try to keep faith with the work that was begun 50 years ago."
North Carolina civil rights activists are using the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington to keep pressure upon state legislators to repeal policies they argue hurt minority groups and the poor and to promote equality.
The state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People scheduled "Take the Dream Home" rallies late Wednesday afternoon in each of the state's 13 congressional districts.
The NAACP says the rallies keep with the call of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 event to go home and organize. President Barack Obama plans to speak at an anniversary event Wednesday in Washington.
The North Carolina rallies continue protest events held since this spring. Those events led to hundreds of arrests.