By C. N. Staff Writer
The legacy of the March on Washington lives on. On Saturday August 24, 2013 hundreds of thousands of people descended on the National Mall’s reflecting pool, where civil rights leaders gave speeches about the injustices of the time. Most notably, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. As participants marched to commemorate the anniversary, speakers stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and continued the call for racial and socioeconomic equality, just as Dr. King did 50 years ago.
Speakers included the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who marched 50 years earlier, along with other notable dignitaries like U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Newark Mayor Corey Booker, Congressman John Lewis and other civil rights leaders of the time like Al Sharpton who was the day’s keynote speaker. Dr. King’s oldest son Martin Luther King III was on hand to speak and commemorate his father’s legacy, who now has recently been honored with an official memorial on national mall. In his remarks he said, “The task is not done. The journey is not complete. We can and we must do more.” Reverend Jesse Jackson, who participated 50 years ago, said there were many barriers in those days that have fallen, but there are more barriers coming up today.
The “Let Freedom Ring” event began Saturday and culminated Wednesday where President Barack Obama, the first sitting African-American president, gave the keynote speech, marking the final day of events on August 28th the same day the march took place in 1963. In his speech, Obama sought to further the dialogue of change saying, “Change does not come from Washington but to Washington.” He spoke before thousands who gathered on the Mall before the Lincoln Memorial, as hundreds of thousands had been all those years ago. “In the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it,” he said. Near him was a simple bell. It once had hung in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where less than a month after the first march a bomb went off, killing four girls. Before the president spoke, those on stage had rung the bell, time and again, for the living and for the dead.
Mr. Obama was joined on stage by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as well as relatives of Dr. King, civil-rights leaders and prominent African-Americans, among them Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and entertainer Oprah Winfrey. Former President George W. Bush had been invited but declined due to a recent heart stent procedure, his office said.
Mr. Obama spoke of racial disparities, saying that amid the many advances for African-Americans over 50 years, black unemployment “has remained almost twice as high as white unemployment” and that “the gap in wealth between the races has not lessened; it’s grown.” The event, which was sponsored by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, Martin Luther King III and the NAACP and many of the speakers addressed race relations in optimistic terms, describing America’s progress as encouraging but incomplete, but they also delved at times into more controversial fare like the Supreme Court’s recent decision overturning parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Martin’s parents attended the march, and his mother, Sybrina Fulton, briefly addressed the crowd.
Many who turned out for the day’s events said they felt like they were part of history. Cassandra Martin, 42, a nurse from Washington, D.C., said the issues facing the country today are not that different than those of 1963. “What was then is still relevant today,” she said.
“We’ve gone from being denied the right to vote to the crown jewel, President Barack (Obama) in the White House today. Yet beyond that, too many are facing abounding poverty, student loan debt, credit card debt,” Jackson said. “Now we need a focus on legislation and appropriations to revive the war on poverty and fight for a constitutional right to vote.” Voting rights are a major focus, as they were 50 years ago. But now, activists are focused on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this year to strike down parts of the federal Voting Rights Act. Those provisions were originally passed to protect black voters in mostly Southern states.
King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, noted that at the 1963 march, there was “not a single woman on the program.” “We have witnessed great strides toward freedom,” she said, but “we must keep the sound and the message of freedom and justice going.”
The 1963 march focused on what Andrew Young, a close associate of King’s and later Atlanta mayor, called “the triple evils of racism, war and poverty.” Young said King’s speech focused mostly on poverty. “He said that the Constitution was a promissory note to which all of us would fall heir, but that when men and women of color presented their check at the Bank of Justice, it came back marked ‘insufficient funds.’
“Fifty years later,” Young concluded, “we’re still here trying to cash that bad check. Fifty years later, we’re still dealing with all kinds of problems, and so we’re not here to claim any victory — we’re here to simply say that the struggle continues.” Obama said, “No one can match King’s brilliance, but the same flame that lit the heart of all who are willing to take a first step for justice, I know that flame remains.”
In the end, the most significant part of Obama’s appearance at the March on the Washington memorial may not have been anything he said or didn’t say. It may have been that he was there at all, a black president representing a continuum of advancement unimaginable 50 years ago.