They came to Washington D.C. from points all around the country, traveling by plane, train and automobile. Others came by bus, much the same way they, their parents and neighbors came 50 years ago.
One goal, organizers said, was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation”—the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But a greater goal was for the event to become a call to action.
On a picture perfect day, a crowd estimated at more than 100,000 men, women and children convened in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial—the same spot where more than 250,000 gathered on Aug. 28, 1963—for the March on Washington 2013. The event included a pre-march rally and a march from the Lincoln Memorial, down Independence Avenue past the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, to the Washington Monument, where the group dispersed. While the audience was predominantly Black, the group also included Whites, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans.
Fifty years ago, King, then a young preacher who had been unofficially designated the voice of the Civil Rights Movement, spoke of segregation, racism and job discrimination and the dream that his people would overcome them in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. At the Aug. 24 march, whose theme was “Realize the Dream,” the same concerns were echoed by a cadre of the nation’s most respected leaders, who urged the crowd to make jobs and justice the priority of the freedom movement going forward.
Rev. Joseph Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, implored the crowd to “agitate” for change, the same message Frederick Douglass used as his rallying cry more than 120 years before.
“Everything has changed and nothing has changed,” Lowery said. “We came to Washington to commemorate, but we are going home to agitate.”
Speakers at the pre-march rally included U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; Martin Luther King, III; Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of martyred civil rights activist Medgar Evers; and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who drew applause and cheers when he was recognized for his service to the struggle by the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the event’s organizers. The speakers also included Simeon Wright, a cousin of Emmett Till, the Chicago teenager whose brutal beating by racists in Money, Miss., in 1955 touched off the Civil Rights Movement and Sybrina Fulton, the mother of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, whose fatal shooting by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in 2012 sparked protests and activism around the nation.
Several people in the crowd told the AFRO that they believe that King’s dream has been at least partially realized, though they cited Trayvon’s killing and Zimmerman’s acquittal as signs that justice is still elusive for Blacks, especially young men.
And while African Americans head Fortune 100 companies, the double-digit unemployment rate for Blacks, which is always significantly higher than it is for Whites, shows that economic freedom has not been achieved, they said.
“My kids go to an integrated school and I live in a predominantly White neighborhood where I feel welcome, most of the time,” said E.J. Perkins of Los Angeles. “My wife and I worry that our son may have an encounter with the police and end up hurt. I have several friends who are out of work. I am able to provide for my family, but I am sure that my White male coworkers make more than me.
So yes, there have been some advances, but no, we are not there yet.”
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), believed to be the only person who addressed the 1963 march who remains alive today, told the audience that while many of the issues that interfered with Black progress have been addressed, many remain. Like several other dignitaries, he criticized the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down critical parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and demanded that Congress move to restore them.
A veteran of the Civil Rights Movement who has been on the front lines fighting for justice since the early 1960s, Lewis was injured when a bus carrying Freedom Riders was attacked with a Molotov cocktail on Mother’s Day 1961 in Anniston, Ala. He suffered a serious blow to his head on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, when peaceful protesters were brutally assaulted by police.
"We cannot give up. We cannot give out. And we cannot give in," Lewis told the audience. “I gave a little blood on the bridge in Selma, Alabama, for the right to vote. I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us. You cannot stand by. You cannot sit down. You got to get up, stand up, speak out, get in the way and make some noise!”
Evers-Williams, who buried her husband, the Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, two months and two weeks before the 1963 march, after he was ambushed by a cowardly assassin in front of his house, asked that a new meaning be applied to the “Stand Your Ground” reference, much touted since the slaying of Trayvon at age 17.
“I find myself saying, ‘What are we doing today? Where have we come from? What has been accomplished? And, where do we go from this point forward?’” she said. “I think of one thing that has been played over and over in the past few months…’Stand your ground.’ And we can think of standing your ground in the negative, but I ask you today to flip that coin and make ‘stand your ground’ a positive thing for all of us who believe in freedom, justice and equality, that we stand firm on the ground that we have already made and be sure that nothing is taken from us. Because there are some efforts to turn back the clock of freedom.”
A March on Washington commemoration was also scheduled on the actual anniversary, Aug. 28, when President Obama and former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were scheduled to participate. A bell-ringing ceremony was planned for 3 p.m.
King III, who was a small boy when his father was assassinated just five years after the original march, told the crowd that he was “humbled” at the notion of standing where his father had stood.
“Like you, I continue to feel his presence,” he said. “Like you, I continue to hear his voice crying out in the wilderness.”
As the pre-march rally started, dozens of Washington, D.C. residents gathered at the nearby War Memorial to demand statehood for the nation’s capital, led by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).
The Rev. Al Sharpton, commentator and founder of the National Action Network, one of the organizations that presented the day’s events, gave a powerful keynote address that started off with a reminder to those who believe the struggle for civil rights is no longer relevant.
“Civil rights didn’t write your resume, but civil rights made someone read your resume,” he told the crowd. “Don’t act like whatever you achieved, you achieved because you were that smart.”
Sharpton called for stronger gun control legislation to stem the violence that victimizes so many African Americans and challenged threats to voting rights. He told marchers when confronted with a request for a photo ID at a voting poll, “take out a photo of Medgar Evers” or another civil rights martyr.
Then, he turned his attention to young men.
“Don’t you ever think that men like Medgar Evers died to give you the right to be a hoodlum or give you the right to be a thug,” he said. He added, indirectly referencing music with misogynistic messages that is part of popular culture, “I don’t care how much money they give you, don’t disrespect our women. No matter what they promise you, make it clear that you know that Rosa Parks wasn’t no ho’ and Fannie Lou Hamer wasn’t no bitch.”
Walking down the parade route from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, led by their Black leaders, marchers carried signs with messages like “ Freedom,” “No Justice No Peace” and “We March to End Racial Profiling.”
Participants said they believe the march will revive an activism that was all but extinguished in the so-called post-racial America.
“Fifty years ago, thousands of people came to support and unify a nation, particularly people of color,” the Rev. Barbara Ridgley, 70, of Fort Washington, told the AFRO. “We came today with new commitments to address old issues that still exist.”