By SUZANNE GAMBOA and NANCY BENAC, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - Taking stock of progress both made and still to come, Americans of all backgrounds and colors massed on the National Mall on Wednesday to hear President Barack Obama and civil rights pioneers commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech on the same spot where he gave unforgettable voice to the struggle for racial equality 50 years earlier. It was a moment rich with history and symbolism: the first black president poised to stand where King first sketched his dream.
Marchers opened the damp day by 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. Midafternoon, the same bell was to ring that once hung in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., before the church was bombed in 1963.
Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were part of the lineup, too, with George W. Bush sending a statement of support. Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker and Jamie Foxx led the celebrity contingent.
Setting an energetic tone for the day, civil rights veteran Andrew Young, a former U.N. ambassador and congressman, sang an anthem of the civil rights movement and urged the crowd to join in as he belted out: "I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom." He ended his remarks by urging the crowd to "fight on."
Civil rights activist Myrlie Evers Williams, whose husband Medgar Evers was murdered in 1963, said that while the country "has certainly taken a turn backwards" on civil rights she was energized to move forward. She said in today's world there is too much emphasis on individuality and how people can reach their own personal goals.
She challenged a new generation of parents and leaders to work on community building, saying "it is your problem."
King's eldest son, Martin Luther King III, said blacks can rightfully celebrate his father's life and work, and the election of the first black president, but much more work remains. He spoke on NBC's "Today" show of staggering unemployment among young black men and said that even now, drawing on his father's words, "many young people, it seems, are first judged by their color and then the content of their character."
Organizers of the rally broadened the focus well beyond racial issues, bringing speakers forward to address the environment, gay rights, the challenges facing the disabled and more.
NBA legend Bill Russell told the crowd he'd been at the 1963 march as an "interested bystander," and quipped with a smile, "It's nice to be anywhere 50 years later."
Turning serious, he added: "You only register progress by how far you have to go.... The fight has just begun and we can never accept the status quo until the word `progress' is taken out of our vocabulary."
Large crowds thronged to the Lincoln Memorial, where King, with soaring, rhythmic oratory and a steely countenance, pleaded with Americans to come together to stomp out racism and create a land of opportunity for all.
Slate gray skies gave way to sunshine briefly peeking from the clouds as the "Let Freedom Ring" commemoration unfolded. After that, a steady rain.
Among faces in the crowd: lawyer Ollie Cantos of Arlington, Va., there with his 14-year-old triplets Leo, Nick and Steven. All four are blind, and they moved through the crowd with their hands on each other's shoulders, in a makeshift train.
Cantos, who is Filipino, said he brought his sons to help teach them the continuing fight for civil rights.
"The disability rights movement that I'm a part of, that I dedicate my life to, is actually an extension of the original civil rights movement," said Cantos. "I wanted to do everything I can to school the boys in the ways of the civil rights movement and not just generally but how it effects them personally."
D.C. plumber Jerome Williams, whose family tree includes North Carolina sharecroppers, took the day off work to come with his wife and two kids. "It's a history lesson that they can take with them for the rest of their lives," he said.
It seemed to work. His son Jalen, marking his 17th birthday, said: "I'm learning the history and the stories from my dad. I do appreciate what I do have now."
Performers included Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey, their voices thinner now than when they performed at the original march as part of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. They sang "Blowin' in the Wind," as the parents of slain black teenager Trayvon Martin joined them on stage and sang along. The third member of the trio, Mary Travers, died in 2009.
The scheduled appearance later Wednesday of Obama was certain to embody the fulfilled dreams of hundreds of thousands who rallied there in 1963. Obama has not often talked publicly about racial issues in the time he has been president. He did, however, talk at some length about the challenges he faced as a young black male as he discussed the case of Martin, the Florida teen-ager killed in a confrontation with neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.
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 Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a longtime leader in civil rights battles.
Obama considers the 1963 march a "seminal event" and part of his generation's "formative memory." A half-century after the march, he said, is a good time to reflect on how far the country has come and how far it still has to go.
In an interview Tuesday on Tom Joyner's radio show, Obama said he imagines that King "would be amazed in many ways about the progress that we've made." He listed advances such as equal rights before the law, an accessible judicial system, thousands of African-American elected officials, African-American CEOs and the doors the civil rights movement opened for Latinos, women and gays.
"I think he would say it was a glorious thing," he said.
But Obama noted that King's speech was also about jobs and justice.
"When it comes to the economy, when it comes to inequality, when it comes to wealth, when it comes to the challenges that inner cities experience, he would say that we have not made as much progress as the civil and social progress that we've made, and that it's not enough just to have a black president, it's not enough just to have a black syndicated radio show host," the president said.
Bush, in a statement, said Obama's presidency is a story that reflects "the promise of America" and "will help us honor the man who inspired millions to redeem that promise." A spokesman said the former president declined to attend because he was recovering from a recent heart procedure.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville, Brett Zongker and Andrew Miga contributed to this report.