People participating in the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington turn onto Pennsylvania Avenue on Aug. 28 in Washington, D.C. H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- Fifty years to the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King
Jr. delivered his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the
Lincoln Memorial, thousands returned to the spot on a rainy Wednesday to
commemorate the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The march started about 9:10 a.m. and stretched roughly three city
blocks. Banners and T-shirts and chants focused on the Trayvon Martin
verdict and on protecting the Voting Rights Act. Other banners focused
on gun control, mass incarceration of African-Americans and equal access
to education. Marchers of all ages and races walked the route together, some singing songs such as "We Shall Not Be Moved."
Lawrence, 57, a pastor at the Moore Street Missionary Baptist Church in
Richmond, Va., said he drove to Washington Wednesday morning with his
sister, Roberta Walker, from Richmond. "I was 7 at the time of the original march. I wanted to be part of the celebration this time. There are so many issues to protest: voting rights, racism, ageism, sexism - many of the 'isms.' The
goal of this country is to become a place where all people are treated
equally and have a fair chance. We have made strides, but have a long
way to go. It's definitely not a level playing field."
See Also: For many, King's speech reset views of race
Carter, 62, a retired educator from Hershey, Pa., said he left home at
3:30 a.m. Wednesday with a friend and his local pastor. "I wanted to be part of the march this time. I was too young - 12 - to go in '63."
said the dream of equal rights "has been realized for some, but there
appears to be a concerted effort to diminish the dream. It's important
to let them know that we won't stand for it. Dr. King wanted a complete America and we don't have that now."
concerned about a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating a key
part of the Voting Rights Act, passed a year after the original march.
"The court took away clauses that allowed the (Justice Department) to
address injustice," he says. "Look at North Carolina and Texas, which
passed repressive laws (soon after) the Supreme Court decision. To say
that everything is OK now is far from the truth."
commemoration culminates a week's worth of events marking the 1963
march, which was organized by civil rights and labor groups. Wednesday's
event will feature speeches by President Obama and former presidents
Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
The gathering, titled "Let
Freedom Ring," is organized by the 50th Anniversary Coalition for Jobs,
Justice and Freedom, a group represented by the NAACP, the National
Urban League, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other civil
Nearly five hours of speeches and
performances are expected to mark the occasion, including appearances by
everyone from Oprah Winfrey and longtime King associate Andrew Young to
Caroline Kennedy, just named by Obama to be ambassador to Japan.
Among the speakers: U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the only surviving speaker from the 1963 march.
an early-morning speech at the Capitol on Wednesday, Lewis recalled
that on Aug. 28, 1963, he and other march organizers met with
congressional lawmakers on Capitol Hill, then planned to lead marchers
to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. "When we stepped out into the
street, we saw hundreds of thousands of people pouring out of Union
Station," Lewis said. "We were supposed to be leading them, but they
were already marching. It was like, 'There go my people - let me catch
up with them.' "
Looking back on 50 years of progress on Wednesday, Lewis told a crowd of lawmakers and others in the Capitol Statuary Hall, "We've
come a distance since that day, but many of the issues that gave rise
to that march are still present needs in our society today: violence,
poverty, hunger, long-term unemployment, homelessness, voting rights and
the need to protect human dignity. We have come a great distance, but
we are not finished yet."
added, "We still need to find a way to humanize our political
institutions, our businesses and our system of education. Fifty years
later, those of us who are committed to the cause of justice need to
pace ourselves because our struggle is an ongoing struggle."
is well-versed in talking about race but does so rarely. As the
nation's first African-American president, he has used his own
improbable story as evidence of how far the nation has come. Even before
he was elected president, then-Sen. Obama in 2007 told worshipers at
the historic Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, Ala., "I'm here
because somebody marched. I'm here because you all sacrificed for me. I
stand on the shoulders of giants."
He referred to King and
his contemporaries as "the Moses generation," but said "we've got to
remember, now, that Joshua still had a job to do."
In office, he
has only occasionally talked about race. Perhaps most significantly, in
2012 he commented on the Trayvon Martin shooting in Sanford, Fla.,
saying of the young African-American who died, "You know, if I
had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. All of us as Americans are going to
take this with the seriousness it deserves."
After a jury
acquitted George Zimmerman in July of the shooting, Obama said, "Trayvon
Martin could have been me 35 years ago. ... When you think about why,
in the African-American community at least, there's a lot of pain. It's
important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at
this issue through a set of experiences and history that doesn't go
King hadn't originally planned the "I have a dream"
rhetoric that gave the occasion its historic significance. In the
moment, Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian Taylor Branch
recently told USA Weekend, King improvised the passage in a
speech that had begun more cynically, with the memorable line, "America
has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back
marked 'insufficient funds.' "
Branch said King then "balked" at
his prepared conclusion, improvising the ending that galvanized the
civil rights moment during one of its most pivotal years. Branch said
Obama "should speak more from his tiptoe stance about race in our
International commemorations will be held at
London's Trafalgar Square, as well as in Japan, Switzerland, Nepal and
Liberia. London Mayor Boris Johnson has said King's speech resonates
around the world and continues to inspire people as one of history's
great pieces of oratory.
As King was ending his speech in 1963, he quoted from the patriotic song My Country 'Tis of Thee and urged his audience to "let freedom ring."
we allow freedom to ring - when we let it ring from every city and
every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed
up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews
and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and
sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at
last, great God almighty, we are free at last,'" King said.
The civil rights leader was assassinated five years later.