Although a host of strides have been made since the original March on Washington a half-century ago, there is still tremendous work to be done, dignitaries told the audience during the 50th anniversary commemorative march on Aug. 24.
The event, which was organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, recognized the historic 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom and also outlined a new agenda for change in America.
But while leaders from across the country discussed issues unique to this generation, like LGBT rights, immigration reform and massive school closures, many topics were hauntingly reminiscent of the problems that plagued the Civil Rights era.
In his speech, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) demanded equality for all people.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re Black, White, Latino, Asian American or Native American,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re straight or gay. We’re one family; we’re one house and we all live in the same house.”
Atop Sharpton’s list of demands was his call for Congress to repair the Voting Rights Act. In June, the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the law that protects voter disenfranchisement.
“They are changing laws all over this country,” Sharpton said during his speech. “Congress needs to make a federal law to deal with what the Supreme Court has done. Right now in Texas, North Carolina and other places, they’re coming with all of these schemes…Why when we get to Obama do we need some special ID?”
Like Sharpton, Martin Luther King, III called for an end to violence in his speech. Citing national tragedies such as last year’s Newtown, Conn. massacre, the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and the overwhelming violence currently afflicting Chicago, King said Americans need to come together and embrace love, as his father preached.
“We need more gun control, but we also need more love,” he said. “We must embrace love and hold on to that powerful spiritual that inspired my father’s generation and inspires many of us today.”
Looking out at a sea of people carrying signs and wearing T-shirts and buttons demanding justice for slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, King called for the abolition of the state’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law and stressed the need for federal anti-profiling legislation.
“The vision preached by my father a half-century ago was that his four little children would one day live in a nation where they would not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character,” he told the crowd. “However, sadly, the tears of Trayvon Martin’s mother and father remind us that far too frequently the color of one’s skin remains a license to profile, to arrest and to even murder with no regard for the content of one’s character.”
Jobs were also a key topic for speakers at the event. A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute revealed that the African-American unemployment rate has barely changed since the original march. In 1963 the unemployment rate was 5 percent for Whites and 10.9 percent for Blacks. Currently, the rate is 6.6 for Whites and 12.6 for Blacks.
“If we can’t get jobs, we need to continue these marches and if we get tired, we need to sit in the offices of some of those here who don’t understand that folks want to work and earn for their families,” Sharpton said.
He added, “They have the money to bail out banks, major corporations and tax benefits for the 1 percent, but when it comes to municipal workers and our teachers, they stop the check. We’re going to make you make the check good or we’re going to close down the bank.”
Sharpton called for unification in the effort to effect change.
“As we fight, let us not limit the coalition,” he said. “We need all of us together.”