On 50th ‘Dream’ Anniversary, Obama Seeks MLK Moment

A President who has more often avoided talk of race prepares to step into Martin Luther King Jr.'s shadow

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People from across the globe arrive at the National Mall to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech on Aug. 24, 2013

It will be a moment that perhaps even Martin Luther King Jr. couldn’t have dreamed.

Fifty years to the day after King’s historic “I have a dream” address, President Barack Obama on Wednesday will stand in the same place the civil rights icon stood at the Lincoln Memorial as he commemorates the 1963 March on Washington. For the nation’s first black President, it comes at a moment in time when King’s dream is at once tantalizingly close yet troublingly far.

When Obama takes the podium on Wednesday afternoon, he will mark the nation’s progress from a country that assaulted peaceful black protesters looking to expand their right to vote, to one that elected him 45 years after King and his followers took to the National Mall.

(MORE: Partisan Politics Creeps Into ‘I Have A Dream’ Anniversary)

More important, aides said, Obama will chart a course for the future, issuing a call to action to keep King’s vision alive even as memories of civil rights struggles fade with time.

“This moment in the continuum in our history is an important one,” Obama senior adviser and confidante Valerie Jarrett tells TIME. “It gives the President a chance to reflect on those 50 years. What that speech meant to him, how far our nation has come, and where he sees our nation going.”

For Obama, that means using the speech to strike a chord with his core demographic — the country’s youth — by encouraging them to keep the struggle alive, even as the finish line approaches.

“Each generation has an obligation to pick up the baton,” Jarrett says. “We want young people to feel a sense of responsibility to take that baton and run with it.”

(PHOTOS: TIME Presents One Dream: The March on Washington)

“The President enjoys the opportunity to motivate young people,” she adds. “[For instance] his speech to his campaign team the day after the last election. He was moved to tears. He said: ‘You all are so much better than we were. The future really rests with you.'”

Obama, Jarrett says, “stands on the shoulders of those who came before him. The next generation will stand on his shoulders. So they can stand taller.”

For a President who has eschewed talking about race at almost every turn during his time in the White House, circumstance has increasingly intervened to force a more direct approach to the subject. Last month, Obama spoke in deeply personal terms about the death of Trayvon Martin and the state of race relations after the acquittal of George Zimmerman.

“There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store — that includes me,” Obama said. “There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.”

Those remarks were his most direct attempt to discuss race since a 37-minute speech during the 2008 campaign, in which he set out to allay concerns after the controversy over inflammatory remarks by his longtime pastor Jeremiah Wright, and at the time he spoke about the lingering bitterness from the civil rights era.

(COVER STORY: Martin Luther King Jr.: Architect of the 21st Century)

But coupled with the June Supreme Court decision striking down a key component of the Voting Rights Act, the Zimmerman verdict has raised the stakes for the President. Given the momentous nature of the address, Obama has taken on a larger role in drafting his remarks, but aides said he would build on, rather than try to compete with, King’s historic address.

Born a little more than two years before King’s speech and raised almost exclusively outside the racially charged mainland, in Indonesia and Hawaii where the civil rights struggle was far less pervasive, Obama’s relationship with the experience that underpinned King’s speech is something he has long struggled with. That struggle formed much of the basis for his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father. The significance of King’s speech to Obama’s own narrative is expected to be a key component of his remarks.

Jarrett told TIME the speech would fit into the larger arc of his life.

“What the President has always fought for, starting as a community organizer in Chicago,” Jarrett says, “is to make sure this is the land of opportunity for everyone.”

(SPECIAL: One Dream: Explore MLK’s Historic Speech 50 Years Later)