Obama on MLK Legacy: ‘I Know That Flame Remains’

President praises Civil Rights workers who marched with MLK, saying they changed America

President Barack Obama marked the 50th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech and the March on Washington by calling on Americans to embrace the Civil Right's leader's message of change.

"His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time," Obama said Wednesday from the Lincoln Memorial, the very spot where King made his plea for racial tolerance and equality five decades ago.

Though King's eloquence may be untouched, the president said a similar spirit of tolerance and a shared desire for greater opportunities can be found today. Obama called on Americans to honor the legacy of the march by striving for greater social and economic equality.

"That same imagination, that same hunger of purpose stirs in this generation," Obama said.

"No one can match King’s brilliance but the same flame that lit the hearts of all who were willing to take that first step for justice, I know that flame remains," he added.

See video: Watch the 'I Have a Dream' Speech

It was an occasion for remembrance, but also politics, with speakers using the occasion to criticize the Supreme Court's recent decision to overturn parts of the Voting Rights Act. They also noted that there are still many instances of intolerance and discrimination, particularly with regards to a criminal justice system that incarcerates a disproportionate number of African Americans.

"We'll suffer the occasional setback but we will win these fights," Obama said.

Obama said that the anniversary of King's address should not obscure the unnamed, unknown activists who agitated to end segregation and who inspired other social justice causes ranging from women's rights to gay rights to democratic movements in foreign countries.

Also read: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Dream Turns 50: How the Networks Are Covering

"They had every reason to lash out in anger…and yet they choose a different path," Obama said. "In the face of hatred they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence they stood up and set in."

"Because they kept marching America changed…Because they marched America became more free and more fair," he added.

Yet, the president said that in the face of income inequality, inadequate healthcare and daunting levels of unemployment, the African American community and Americans in general cannot afford to be complacent.

"The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice but it does not bend on its own," Obama said, echoing a phrase that King himself once popularized.

Obama was joined at the event and in these calls to action by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.  Civil Rights icons like Rep. John Lewis (D – Ga.), members of King's family and talk show host Oprah Winfrey attended the rain-dappled event, which was marked by bell ringing.

Also read: The Amazing Story of How MLK Ad-Libbed the 'I Have a Dream' Speech

In his address a half century ago, King spoke of an end to discrimination and shared his vision for a new era of racial harmony. He personalized that global message, by saying in the speech's most quoted line that his dream was that "my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Obama himself offered perhaps the most vivid illustration of racial progress and King's prophetic dream, not through the words he spoke, but by his very presence on the dais as the first African-American president of the United States.

Clinton said that the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and social programs like Medicare and Medicaid came to fruition in part because of King's calls for justice and compassion.

"This march and that speech changed America — they opened minds and changed hearts and they moved millions," Clinton said, noting that he had listened to the speech and been stirred as a teenager.

Clinton noted that the country faces enormous challenges, but said the government and American citizens should not accept partisan gridlock as an excuse for inaction.

"It is time to stop complaining and put our shoulders against the stubborn gates holding the American people back," Clinton said.

In his remarks, Carter sought to tie the three Democratic presidents on stage to the martyred Civil Rights leader, saying that he doubted he or Clinton or Obama would have ever been elected to the White House were it not for King's legacy.

"In truth he helped to free all people," Carter said.

He also took the opportunity to slam the Supreme Court's decision to overturn parts of the Voting Rights act, the higher rates of imprisonment and unemployment among African Americans and gun control laws.

King became perhaps the greatest symbol of the Civil Rights movement and an important figure in the realm of non-violent civil disobedience. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and assassinated in 1968.

Though the choice of venue and message were purposefully chosen to evoke memories of King's address, Obama took pains to emphasize that his oration would be a pale shadow of the original.

"It won't be as good as the speech 50 years ago," he told syndicated radio host Tom Joyner earlier this week.

"When you are talking about Dr. King's speech at the March on Washington, you're talking about one of the maybe five greatest speeches in American history," he added.