Tens of thousands of demonstrators convened in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial Aug. 24 to demand justice and jobs in an emotional and peaceful commemoration of the historic 1963 March on Washington.
Themed a “National Action to Realize the Dream,” the March on Washington 2013, and a rally before the march, paid homage to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the very spot 50 years ago.
Many in the crowd carried signs extolling the wrong done to Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, who was first killed by George Zimmerman, then became the victim of character assassination by some who believed that his killer was right to shoot the unarmed Black teenager. Among the hottest selling souvenirs were T-shirts emblazoned with Trayvon’s image. His mother, Sybrina Fulton, spoke during the program; she was accompanied by his father, Tracy Martin, and several loved ones.
Many of the nation’s best known and most-loved and respected Black leaders took the stage, including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; Martin Luther King, III; Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of martyred civil rights activist Medgar Evers; the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who drew thunderous applause and cheers when he was recognized for his service to African Americans’ struggle for freedom by the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the event’s organizers; and Dr. Joseph Lowery, the SCLC co-founder who urged the crowd to “agitate,” using the same action word Frederick Douglass used to urge Blacks to action more than 120 years ago.
“Everything has changed and nothing has changed,” Lowery said, as the dignitaries on the dais prepared to take to the street in a march to the Washington Monument. “We came to Washington to commemorate, but we are going home to agitate.”
Organizers estimated the crowd at 100,000—men, women, children, Black, White, Latino, Asian, straight, gay and bi-sexual, Protestant, Catholic and agnostic. The common denominator among participants was a desire to see all citizens in this nation treated equally.
King III, who was a small child when his father was assassinated just five years after the 1963 March on Washington, urged the crowd, with the sun shining on a picture-perfect day, to continue the quest for his father’s dream of justice and jobs.
“We need to keep on walking, keep on talking and keep on educating,” he said in a tone that eerily mirrored his father’s a half-century ago. King III called for a new plan to provide jobs in the wake of a struggling economy as he urged an end of senseless violence around the country.
“No more Newtowns, no more Columbines and no more violence in Chicago,” he told the crowd, drawing applause.
Sharpton, leader of the National Action Network, took the stage with a call to action of his own.
“We believe in a new America!” he said. “It’s time to march for a new America!”
Sharpton harkened back to the original march. “Fifty years ago, some came to Washington and rode on the back of busses. Some couldn’t stay in hotel rooms and had to sleep in cars,” he said.
Today, Blacks have access to hotels and public transportation, but so much more still eludes them, leaders said. Sharpton later urged generations young and old to come together to fight against the injustices and social ills that plague Black progress.
Sharpton and King were the key organizers of the event, pulling more than 40 groups together under the umbrella of a commemoration of the 1963 march. Included in this event were Sharpton’s National Action Network, the Service Employees International Union, the NAACP and the American Federation of Teachers.
While the often thunderous oratory centered on overcoming racism and injustice, speaker after speaker fired out at unemployment, the erosion of voting rights, gun violence, the lack of women’s rights and the need for immigration reform. D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, one of the speakers at the pre-march rally, also spoke earlier in the day at a rally for D.C. statehood held at the National War Memorial, also on the National Mall.
For those returning to the scene of the historic gathering 50 years, the talk was of unfinished business.
“We have more poverty in D.C. than we had 50 years ago,” said D.C. Council member and former mayor Marion Barry, whose political career was forged by his role as a leader of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s and 1970s. He added that today there is “more unemployment, more homeless and more poor people. We’ve got a long way to go.”
The youth contingent was typified by Kayla Williams, 22, of Buffalo, N.Y.
“It’s about re-walking the steps and taking the steps to not only remember the fight for justice and equality 50 years ago, but continue it as well,” she told the AFRO. “It goes to show that there are still things that we need to fight for. And taking the steps that my forebearers took is very important to me.”
Among those in the crowd were new citizens., including Eva Ablorh, 63, who currently lives in Northern Virginia, but is originally from Ghana.
“I’m not originally from this country, but when I immigrated here, I realized that people have gone through a whole lot to be able to fit into this society,” she said. “Their work is still not done.
The march is very important because it is a reminder to the younger generation that there is something to be serious about. They need to stand up and [carry] the mantle forward. People have suffered and died to get to where we are right now.”