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Message of American renewal: ‘We’ll have to reignite the embers of empathy’

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

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Updated: September 30, 2013 7:44AM

For America to move forward, to become more just and strong, we need to put “united” back into the United States.

That was the message a passionate President Barack Obama brought to the Lincoln Memorial Wednesday as he spoke on the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington. The president called on all Americans to put aside their differences and work to make good jobs, education and health care a reality for everyone willing to work for them.

To do that, he said, “We’ll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling.”

In recent years, America has seen too much of the opposite: lawmakers insisting on getting their way at any cost, Americans reaching only for a bigger share for themselves, people giving up or turning to violence. The casualties of that self-centeredness are everywhere: government gridlock, failing schools, citizens without health care, people who can’t find jobs, and unsafe streets.

Addressing tens of thousands of Americans of all backgrounds on the National Mall, Obama called for a different spirit, one of harmony and working together. He talked of a white mother who recognizes her own daughter in the face of a poor black child; a black youth who thinks of his own grandfather in the dignified steps of an elderly white man; the native-born empathizing with immigrants, an interracial couple who understands the pain of a gay couple suffering from discrimination.

We find we do not walk alone “when we turn not from each other or on each other but towards one another,” the president said. “... People of goodwill, regardless of party are too plentiful for those with ill will to change history’s currents.”

Like former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, who spoke before him, Obama linked Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1963 call to action to today’s “unfinished business,” the need for good jobs, good wages, education and the “right to health care in the richest nation on earth for every person.”

The “glorious patriots” of 50 years ago were seeking “not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity,” Obama said. “For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?”

Yet the dispirit of division remains strong. Economic inequality has grown. Following a Supreme Court ruling two months ago invalidating a key enforcement provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, 11 states have enacted photo-ID laws designed to suppress voter turnout and eight others are awaiting implementation of such laws. The U.S. House of Representatives has voted dozens of times to repeal the Affordable Care Act without offering a viable alternative.

Those are challenges, but they are no greater than the barriers faced by the marchers of a half century ago. Those determined idealists forced huge changes for the better, and we can do so again.

If we can find within ourselves the empathy to walk in another’s shoes.

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