WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands of people from across the nation gathered at the National Mall on Saturday to commemorate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and to rally for what they believe is the unfinished business of the civil-rights battle.
The throng assembled around the base of the Lincoln Memorial — where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963 — and listened to speaker after speaker implore those in the audience 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 members by exhorting them to fight the Supreme Court’s June decision that effectively struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Alabama, for the right to vote,” he told the crowd, referring to the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in which protesters were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us.”
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The 5-4 court decision opened the way for states such as North Carolina and Texas to enforce new restrictions on voting access.
“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,” Lewis added.
The speeches that carried over the Reflecting Pool and that 50 years ago prodded Congress to pass landmark laws, took aim at current racial profiling by law enforcement, economic inequality and efforts to restrict voting access.
Addressing generations too young to remember the civil-rights movement but who benefited from it, the Rev. Al Sharpton, an organizer of Saturday’s event, said: “Don’t act like whatever you achieved you achieved because you were that smart. You got there because some unlettered grandmas who never saw the inside of a college campus put their bodies on the line in Alabama and Mississippi and sponsored you up here.”
A lineup of civil-rights heroes, current leaders of the movement, labor leaders and Democratic officials addressed a crowd that stretched east from the Lincoln Memorial to the knoll of the Washington Monument, well out of range of the loudspeakers. Organizers expected 100,000 people Saturday, less than half the number who came in 1963 when efforts to dismantle segregation had seized national attention.
Other speakers included Attorney General Eric Holder, who on Thursday sued Texas over a strict voter-ID law; and Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager who was shot and killed last year.
Holder, receiving the first roar of welcome of the day from the crowd, said that King’s struggle must continue “until every eligible American has the chance to exercise his or her right to vote unencumbered by discrimination or unneeded procedurals, rules or practices.”
The Martin case, which led to the acquittal in July of a neighborhood-watch volunteer in Martin’s killing, was a major touchstone of the day. There were T-shirts of him in a hoodie and the acrid phrase “American Justice,” and signs urging “Support Trayvon’s Law” to repeal stand-your-ground gun measures.
Others spoke of unfinished business from the march.
“This is not the time for nostalgic commemoration,” said Martin Luther King III, the older son of the slain civil-rights leader. “Nor is this the time for self-congratulatory celebration. The task is not done. The journey is not complete. We can and we must do more.”
Sharpton raised the rhetorical temperature, noting that in past decades when blacks voted for Presidents Kennedy, Nixon, George W. Bush and others, their IDs at the polls had been sufficient. “Why when we get to [Barack] Obama do we need some special ID?” he said to a roar of approval.
“When we leave here we’re going to go to those states,” including North Carolina and Texas, he continued. “And when they ask us for our voter ID, take out a photo of Medgar Evers.” Take out other photos of slain civil-rights activists of the ’60s “who gave their lives so we could vote,” he added. “ ‘Look at this photo. It gives you the ID of who we are.’ ”
Nevertheless, the mood and atmosphere around the Lincoln Memorial were festive and reflective as people sat on blankets or on lawn chairs and cheered as speakers made their points.
Emma Daniels, 70, wore a cap adorned with buttons from the 1963 march. Standing under a tree with her family, Daniels pointed to where she and other members of Augusta, Ga., 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 what she experienced in 1963. She said she remembers an air of tension then, mainly because many of the 250,000 people who were there that day had traveled 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.
Amber Brown, 43, made the five-hour drive from Raleigh, N.C., to Washington with her two children because she wanted 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.”
Nancy Norman, of Seattle, said she was disappointed more people who look like her had not attended. She is white. But Norman, 58, said she was glad to hear climate change discussed alongside voting rights. “I’m the kind of person who thinks all of those things are interconnected. Climate change is at the top of my list,” said Norman.
Saturday’s commemoration was a prelude to Wednesday’s actual March on Washington’s anniversary. President Obama, who is scheduled to speak at a quieter ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial, was mentioned by many speakers Saturday as the fulfillment of King’s dream. Through much of his presidency, however, Obama has been reluctant to frame issues in specifically racial terms, sometimes to the frustration of civil-rights leaders.
While King spoke in August 1963 of his dream that one day his children would be judged by the content of their character, not their color, Obama has turned the focus away from racial tension and discrimination — his election being an obvious refutation — to issues of unequal economic opportunity. Lately he has taken to reminding people that the 1963 demonstration, officially the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” was as much about fighting for economic equality.
His address at the Lincoln Memorial will be from where King made history, and he will be joined by former Presidents Clinton and Carter.
Material from The New York Times and The Associated Press is included in this report.