WASHINGTON – Thousands of people marched on Saturday to mark the 58th anniversary of the historic March on Washington and voice their support for expanding and protecting access to the ballot.
The crowd cheered, sang and danced in the streets on the way to the National Mall while calling on Congress to pass an extensive voting rights measure and eliminate the filibuster if necessary to do so. The marchers, though fewer than in years past, also demanded D.C. statehood and an end to police brutality.
“If we keep going down this road, we’re going to be back like Jim Crow,” said Craig Browne, 74, who traveled to the nation’s capital from Wyncote, Pa.
Browne, who lived in Alabama when segregation was still in place, said he had wanted to join the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and other civil rights leaders in the historic 1963 march, but his mother didn’t want him to miss school. So he wasn’t missing this one.
As he gathered with others in McPherson Square, he wore a shirt with the face of Lewis, who went on to become a Democratic congressman from Georgia, and carried a sign with a quote of his that read, “The vote is the most powerful non-violent tool we have.” Others also held signs invoking Lewis’s name and his words encouraging “good trouble.”
“I remember segregation,” Browne said. “I remember separate, and it wasn’t equal.”
Organizers had arranged buses to bring people in from across the country to rally on the Mall. There was a celebratory mood as demonstrators urged Congress to pass the For the People Act, a sweeping elections and ethics bill that would impose national standards for voting and override state-level restrictions. They also called for passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which aims to restore voting rights protections that have been weakened by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Civil and labor leaders have coalesced around the cause, saying this is a continuation of the same battles King fought when he inspired tens of thousands of people to show up to the seminal March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
As the crowd passed the National Museum of African American History and Culture, one protester yelled into a megaphone: “You can’t stop the revolution!”
Another group started chanting: “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”
Shirley Thompson, 66, of Petworth, held the hands of her great-granddaughters Harley, 7, and Laloni, 8, as she marched past the Washington Monument.
“Pass the John Lewis Act Now! Let’s get into some good trouble!” she chanted.
“We want statehood for D.C.!” she chanted into the crowd. “We want you to know we are serious!”
As the crowd turned from Constitution Avenue back onto 14th Street NW, Jeremiah Surratt began walking backward and shimmied his shoulders in rhythm with the marchers’ drums and yelled, “Black votes matter!”
Surratt, 18, of Cleveland, said he hadn’t been old enough to vote in the most recent election but wanted to ensure his voice was heard in the next one. But he said that as an African American, he felt his right to vote was vulnerable to suppression and manipulation – something that would only change with more participation from others like him.
“Young people today need to understand that your vote is important,” he said.
The demonstrators marched in two groups, one with the March on for Voting Rights between the Lincoln Memorial and U.S. Capitol and the other heading to the Make Good Trouble Rally near the Lincoln Memorial. The name of the Make Good Trouble Rally was also intended to honor Lewis, who in 1965 was brutally beaten by a state trooper as he led hundreds of protesters over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma during what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Rodney Lewis Jr. (no relation to the late congressman) found a place in the shade with friends to listen as speakers took the stage to talk about how Black voters, especially Black women, had been critical to President joe Biden’s victory last year and that of many other Democrats down the ballot. Now, they said, it’s time those leaders listen.
Lewis held up his fist and nodded in agreement. He thought of his mother, 63, who had stood in line most of the day just to cast her vote last year in Lithia Springs, Ga., and, as a child growing up in a segregated state, had to go the back of the store for ice cream. Now, she would have to contend with recently enacted voting laws such as Georgia’s that seemed intended to make it harder for people like her to vote.
“It was traumatizing,” Lewis, 36, of Alexandria, Va., said of his mother’s difficulty voting last year. “Why should it take all this for the right to vote? This isn’t the 1960s.”
Dwayne Smith, 60, a Brookland resident who was sitting nearby, expressed frustration that so little progress had been made since then.
Smith expressed frustration that similar issues inspired both Saturday’s march and the one 58 years ago. “Why should we have to march for basic human rights?” he asked
Organizers said the march was also intended to voice support for other civil rights and social justice issues, too, including reparations for slavery, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, canceling student debt, reforming immigration, and ending gun violence and mass incarceration.
Several members of John Lewis’s family appeared onstage, including his youngest brother, Henry “Grant” Lewis, who urged Congress to pass legislation that would make it easier, not harder, for people to vote.
“So it doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on,” he said. “It’s more important to be on the right side of history.”
Lewis also urged the crowd to keep fighting.
“Fifty-eight years ago, my brother and others spoke at this event for voter rights,” Lewis said. “We now realize more than ever this fight is not for a day, or a week, or a month or even a year. We must be committed to fight for a lifetime.”
Some family members of people killed by police also took the stage, including George Floyd’s brother, Philonise.
“Change needs to be now because we will continue to see young men and young women murdered every day,” Philonise Floyd said. “It only takes one person in your life to change everything.”
As he spoke, April Sanchez, 49, live-streamed his remarks on Facebook. She also joined in as he led the crowd in a call and response – “Say his name!” “George Floyd!” – but she chanted the name of different person killed by police: Ryan Ronquillo, her son.
Ronquillo, 20, was shot by Denver police in the parking lot outside his friend’s funeral in July 2014. Police said Ronquillo, who had been sought on several warrants for aggravated motor theft, drove his car at the officers while trying to escape. A federal appeals court later upheld the dismissal of the family’s lawsuit against the department.
“I miss him every day,” she said sitting on the grass with a banner at her feet calling for “justice.”
“Too many people are dying at the hands of police and police aren’t being held accountable,” Sanchez said. She said that if voting rights are expanded and protected, “maybe a change could happen and more things could be fair.”
Serena Patel, 23, sat underneath the shade cooling down with a Gatorade, as she listened to the closing speakers.
“It’s definitely pretty inspiring to see how everyone is coming together supporting this,” she said. “Being actually physically present here is like a different feeling than just reading something or scrolling through stuff. That’s kind of like what I’ve taken away from this, and I hope people feel that way too.”
The Rev. William J. Barber II, a North Carolina preacher who is the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival – a resurgence of a movement created by King before his death in 1968 – also spoke at the march. He has organized protests for voting rights and a $15 federal minimum as part of the.
“This is not Jim Crow, this is James Crow, Esquire,” Barber has said throughout the summer about the battle for voting rights and a higher federal minimum wage. “It’s a certain sadness that we have to fight over the American people having access to the ballot. We have to fight to get the American people a living wage.”
Civil rights leaders have pointed to the influence King’s original March on Washington, and his words, had on the civil rights movement. It created the momentum, they said, for the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march in Alabama that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act two months later.
“We are at a critical, critical juncture in our nation,” organizer Arndrea Waters King, the wife of Martin Luther King III, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eldest son, said in an interview earlier this month. “If we don’t have victories, which I believe that we will have, the impact will be felt for generations.”
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The Washington Post’s Nicole Asbury and Jasmine Hilton contributed to this report.