Fifty years after the historic March on Washington, former U.S. presidents and civil rights leaders stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday to declare that the struggle for justice continues, specifically denouncing the Supreme Court's decision to weaken the Voting Rights Act, stop-and-frisk policing policies, and the stand-your-ground policy that played a role in the death of Trayvon Martin.
"We cannot be discouraged by a Supreme Court decision that said we don't need this critical provision of the Voting Rights Act," President Bill Clinton said at the commemoration. "A great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon."
Mr. Clinton acknowledged the "terrible political gridlock" stalling progress but urged people to work together in spite of it.
"Yes, there remain racial inequalities in employment, income, health, wealth, incarceration and in the victims and perpetrators of violent crime," he said. "But we don't face beatings, lynchings and shootings for our political beliefs anymore. And I would respectfully suggest that Martin Luther King did not live and die to hear his heirs whine about political gridlock.
"It is time," Mr. Clinton continued, "to stop complaining and put our shoulders against the stubborn gates holding the American people back."
President Jimmy Carter also noted the "tremendous agenda" ahead of the American people.
"I believe we all know how Dr. King would have reacted to the new ID requirements to exclude certain voters, especially African-Americans," he said. "I think we all know how Dr. King would have reacted to the Supreme Court striking down a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act just recently passed overwhelmingly by Congress."
He cited the fact that the unemployment rate for African-Americans is nearly twice the rate it is for white people, and noted that the nation is "awash in guns and, for more and more states... stand-your-ground laws."
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who spoke at the March in Washington in 1963, remarked that "this moment in history has been a long time coming."
He urged anyone who thinks there hasn't been progress to consider his story.
"For someone to grow up the way I grew up, in the cotton fields of Alabama to now be serving in the United States Congress, makes me want to tell them, come and walk in my shoes," he said. "Come walk in the shoes of those who were attacked by police dogs, fire hoses, and nightsticks, arrested and taken to jail."
He recounted the violence he faced during the 1961 Freedom Rides and the poll taxes that once existed, keeping black voters out of voting booths.
"Those signs that said 'white' and 'colored' are gone. And you won't see them any more, except in a museum, in a book, or on a video," he said. "But there are still invisible signs, barriers in the heart of humankind that form a gulf between us... The scars and stains of racism still remain deeply embedded in American society, whether it is stop-and-frisk in New York or injustice in Trayvon Martin's case in Florida."
Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, urged America to "wake up."
"Wake up to unfair legality parading as morality," he said. "Wake up to insensitivity to the poor masked as fiscal austerity... Wake up to politics without a positive purpose."
America woke up 50 years ago, Morial said, some in recent years has "dozed" while the forces of injustice evolved. "White sheets were traded for white button down shirts," he said. Attack dogs traded for "tasers and stop-and-frisk policies."
Fifty years ago, King and civil rights proponents fought Jim Crow laws, Al Sharpton noted. Today, he said, "We come as the children of Dr. King to say we are going to face Jim Crow's children -- Jim crow had a son called James Crow, Jr., esquire.