WASHINGTON (AP) - The final refrain of Martin Luther King Jr.'s most famous speech will echo around the world as bells from churches, schools and historical monuments "let freedom ring" in celebration of a powerful moment in civil rights history.
Organizers said sites in nearly every state will ring their bells at 3 p.m. their time Wednesday or at 3 p.m. EDT, the hour when King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington.
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.
On Aug. 28, 1963, 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.
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."
Obama embodies King's dream and his struggle
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama won't need to mention race - a subject he doesn't talk a lot about in public - when he stands at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of the March on Washington.
His presence at the commemorative ceremony Wednesday will embody the fulfilled dreams of the hundreds of thousands who rallied there 50 years ago for racial equality - and will personify the continued struggle for that elusive goal.
When he became president, Obama blasted through a heavy barrier that many before him had only pushed against. But his presidency has been marred by racist backlash and his administration has found itself refighting battles already thought won, such as ensuring equal access to the polls.
Obama is expected to speak just after an organized ringing of bells by churches and others at 3 p.m. EDT, the time when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his spellbinding "I Have a Dream" speech. Obama will be joined by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton at the memorial's steps. Other luminaries include Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, daughter of President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
A march, led by a replica of a transit bus that civil rights leader Rosa Parks rode when she refused to give up her seat to a white man in 1955, and an interfaith service also were planned for Wednesday morning. A march held Saturday drew tens of thousands to the Lincoln Memorial.
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 that 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," Obama said.
Michelle Obama salutes civil rights leader
WASHINGTON (AP) - Michelle Obama called civil rights leader Whitney Young one of the "unsung heroes" who helped make a more fair and just society.
The first lady spoke Tuesday before a screening of the documentary "The Powerbroker: Whitney Young's Fight for Civil Rights." It follows Young's rise from segregated Kentucky to leader of the National Urban League during the 1960s.
Young was one of the organizers for the 1963 March on Washington, which featured Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. Mrs. Obama is scheduled to join President Barack Obama as he makes a speech Wednesday commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march.
"For every Dr. King, there is a Whitney Young or a Roy Wilkins or a Dorothy Height, each of whom played a critical role in the struggle for change," she said before the screening at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, part of the White House complex.
Mrs. Obama said she learned from the documentary that Young drew from his intelligence and sense of humor to face discrimination and challenges. He worked with three presidential administrations, community leaders, business executives and regular citizens to champion for race relations.
The first lady graduated from Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago in 1981.
Mrs. Obama urged the audience including middle and high school students from Washington, D.C., and Loudon County, Va., to become "agents of change" like Young and make their communities and country more safe, prosperous and free.
She told the students they could become filmmakers, teachers, doctors and business executives, as long as they focus on their education now to prepare themselves for opportunities to come.
"Whatever you do, what I want you all to take with you is that I want you to keep pushing to be the very best that you can be at whatever you choose, and that takes hard work," she said. "You have to put in the time and the energy to be great."
The documentary, airing on PBS, includes insight on Young from former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and business executive Vernon Jordan.
Obama holds Martin Luther King as personal hero
WASHINGTON (AP) - Barack Obama was 2 years old and growing up in Hawaii when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Fifty years later, the nation's first black president will stand as the most high-profile example of the racial progress King espoused, delivering remarks Wednesday at a nationwide commemoration of the 1963 demonstration for jobs, economic justice and racial equality.
Obama believes his success in attaining the nation's highest political office is a testament to the dedication of King and others, and that he would not be the current Oval Office occupant if it were not for their willingness to persevere through repeated imprisonments, bomb threats and blasts from billy clubs and fire hoses.
"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," Obama said in a radio interview Tuesday. "And the words that he spoke at that particular moment, with so much at stake, and the way in which he captured the hopes and dreams of an entire generation I think is unmatched."
In tribute, Obama keeps a bust of King in the Oval Office and a framed copy of the program from that historic day when 250,000 people gathered for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Within five years, the man Obama would later identify as one of his idols was dead, assassinated in April 1968 outside of a motel room in Memphis, Tenn.
But King's dream didn't die with him. Many believe it came true in 2008 when Obama became the first black man Americans ever elected as their president.
"Tomorrow, just like 50 years ago, an African-American man will stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and speak about civil rights and justice. But afterward, he won't visit the White House. He'll go home to the White House," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday, speaking of his basketball buddy and boss. "That's how far this country has come. A black president is a victory that few could have imagined 50 years ago."
"He stands on the shoulders of Martin Luther King, and the sacrifices that King made that make a President Obama possible are deeply humbling to him," said Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama's senior advisers and a close family friend.
For Obama, the march is 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, particularly after the Trayvon Martin shooting trial in Florida.
A jury's decision to acquit neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in the 2012 fatal shooting of the unarmed, 17-year-old black teen outraged blacks across the country last month and reignited a nationwide discussion about the state of U.S. race relations. The response to the verdict also raised expectations for America's black president to say something about the case.
Race isn't a subject Obama likes to talk about in public, and he does so only when the times require it, such as the speech on race that he gave in 2008 when his presidential campaign was threatened by the anti-American rantings of his Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
In his interview Tuesday with Tom Joyner and co-host Sybil Wilkes of the Tom Joyner Morning 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 that 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," Obama said.
When he was much younger, it took Obama time to embrace his black-white, African and American heritage. He chronicled that personal journey in his best-selling memoir, "Dreams From My Father," in which he wrote about himself as "the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds."
After Zimmerman was acquitted, Obama spoke out to help people understand black outrage over the verdict. In unusually personal terms, Obama talked about experiences he shares with so many other black men, before he became a well-known public figure, such as being followed in department stores and hearing the click of car doors being locked as he walked by.
He said the African-American community was looking at the issue "through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away."
In Wednesday's speech, Obama will offer his personal reflections on the civil rights movement, King's speech, the progress achieved in the past 50 years and the challenges that demand attention from the next generation.
Obama has said King is one of two people he admires "more than anybody in American history." The other is Abraham Lincoln.
First lady Michelle Obama is scheduled to join the president as he commemorates the march. On the eve of the anniversary, Mrs. Obama saluted one of the march's organizers Whitney Young at a screening on Tuesday for the documentary "The Powerbroker: Whitney Young's Fight for Civil Rights."
She called Young, who served as executive director of the National Urban League during the 1960s, one of the "unsung heroes in our history whose impact we still feel today."
"For every Dr. King, there is a Whitney Young or a Roy Wilkins or a Dorothy Height, each of whom played a critical role in the struggle for change," Mrs. Obama said. "And then there are the millions of Americans, regular folks out there, whose names will never show up in the history books."
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)