WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands of people from across the nation gathered at the National Mall Saturday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and to rally for what they believe is the unfinished business of the civil rights battle.
Under picture-perfect blue skies, the throng assembled around the base of Lincoln Memorial – where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech – and listened to speaker after speaker implore them to become active participants, not bystanders, in the quest of racial equality and harmony.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the only living speaker from the 1963 march, fired up Saturday’s crowd by exhorting them to fight against the Supreme Court’s decision last June that struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Ala.,” he told the crowd, referring to the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in which protestors were brutally beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “I got arrested 40 times during the 60s, beaten and left bloodied and unconscious…But I’m not tired. I am ready to fight and continue to fight, and you must fight.”
Attorney General Eric Holder echoed his sentiments, saying Saturday’s event was “about far more than reflecting on our past.”
“This morning, we must affirm that this struggle must, and will, go on in the cause of our quest for justice – until every eligible American has the chance to exercise his or her right to vote, unencumbered by discriminatory or unneeded procedures, or practices. It must go on until our criminal justice system can ensure that all are treated equally and fairly in the eyes of the law.”
As the morning of oratory moved along, more and more people seemed to make their way to the Mall. The National Park Service, which is charge of the Mall, doesn’t give a crowd estimates. In their planning for the event, District of Columbia officials said they were expecting at least 700 55-passenger charter buses from out of town. Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, estimated that more than 100,000 people were on the Mall by noon on Saturday.
The mood and atmosphere around the Lincoln Memorial was festive and reflective as people sat on blankets or on lawn chairs and cheered as speakers made their points.
Many young people and adults wore T-shirts, buttons, or carried signs protesting the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. Vendors hawked March on Washington anniversary paraphernalia, goods with Trayvon Martin’s likeness, and buttons and T-shirts signifying President Barack Obama’s two elections.
Emma Daniels, 70, wore a cap adorned with buttons from the 1963 march. Standing under a shady tree with her family, Daniels pointed to where she and other members of Augusta, Ga.’s Tabernacle Baptist Church stood 50 years ago when they made the bus journey to Washington.
“I wanted my children to have the same feeling that I had – change,” said Daniels, who now lives in Lorton, Va. “We came out here to march for change, we can’t stay home. We’ve seen a lot of change, we’re going forward, it’s slow, but we’re moving forward.”
Daniels said she noticed a different atmosphere Saturday than from the August 28, 1963 march. She said remembered an air of tension then, mainly because many of the 250,000 people who were there that day had traveled by through a segregated South and feared being stopped by inhospitable law enforcement officers along the way.
“This is so much more relaxed than when we came up – like a family reunion,” she said.
Melanie Marshall, 34, Daniels’ daughter, said the Saturday’s event gave her a greater appreciation for the right to assemble.
“In Egypt, people are fighting and killing each other in the street,” she said. “We’re lucky to be able to come together like this, in a peaceful way.”
Amber Brown, 43, made the 5-hour drive from Raleigh, N.C., to Washington with her two children to witness Saturday’s events because she wanted to her children to learn about “American history and the fact that there are people who fought and died to give them the opportunity to do whatever they want to do and be whatever they want to be.”
Darryl Simmons, 21, made the bus journey to Washington with fellow students from Orangeburg, S.C.’s Claflin University because “I just wanted to relive history.”
“We’re not exactly dealing with happened 50 years ago, but there’s stuff going on and we’re here for justice,” said Simmons, president of Claflin’s Young Democrats.
Saturday’s commemoration was a prelude to Wednesday, the March on Washington’s official anniversary. Another large crowd is expected at the Lincoln Memorial Wednesday as Obama will speak at the spot where King made history 50 years ago.
The nation’s first African-American president is expected to discuss the progress and problems the nation has faced in pursuit of King’s dream that someday his children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Obama rarely talks directly about race, but in the days after the Martin shooting verdict he delivered a sometimes personal analysis as to why Zimmerman’s acquittal struck a chord within the African-American community.
Perhaps offering a preview of Wednesday’s speech, Obama opened up again on Friday at a town hall at New York’s Binghamton University when Anne Bailey, an associate professor of African-American history and African Diaspora studies, asked him where he thought the nation stood 50 years after King’s speech.
“Fifty years after the March on Washington and the ‘I Have a dream Speech’, obviously we’ve made enormous strides,” Obama told Bailey. “I’m a testament to it. The diversity of this room and the students who are here is a testimony to it. And that impulse towards making sure everybody gets a fair shot is one that found expression in the Civil Rights movement, but then spread to include Latinos and immigrants and gays and lesbians.”
Yet, Obama said the legacy of discrimination, including slavery and segregationist Jim Crow laws, means that “some of the institutional barriers for success” still exist.
He noted that African-American poverty in the United States is still significantly higher than other groups, along with Latinos and Native Americans. He said it’s in “all our interest to make sure that we are putting in place smart policies to give those communities a lift.”
“Unfortunately, we’ve got politics sometimes that divides instead of bringing people together,” Obama said, adding there is a “tendency to suggest somehow that government is taking something from you and giving it to somebody else, and your problems will be solved if we just ignore them or don’t help them. And, that, I think is something that we have to constantly struggle against – whether we’re black or white or whatever color we are.”
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