More than 100,000 people who convened on the Washington Mall Saturday, rallied, marched and heard dozens of speakers in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. But the clearest message they heard was to unify, go back and fight.
“We’ve come to Washington to commemorate! We’re going back home to agitate! We’ve come to Washington to commemorate! We’re going back home to agitate!” The Rev. Joseph Lowery, a veteran foot soldier for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., led the chant as the thousands echoed the words, preparing to march after the day-long rally. “We want to go back home to complete the unfinished task,” he said.
According to the lengthy list of speakers, those tasks are many. Unlike the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 1963, which primarily focused on voting rights and economic injustices, the agenda has grown significantly and diversified. One speaker after the other hit on issues; including voting rights, jobs, immigration, gay rights, women’s rights, gun violence, the death penalty, education, racial profiling, and stand your ground gun laws.
Al Sharpton, keynote speaker and lead march organizer, made it plain as he spoke on three of the key issues, economic justice, voting rights and gun violence:
“Dr. King said America gave Blacks a check that bounced in the bank of justice and was returned marked insufficient funds. Well, we re-deposited the check. But guess what? It bounced again. But, when we looked at the reason this time, it was marked ‘stop payment’”, he said to cheers and applause. “They had the money to bail out banks. They had the money to bail out major corporations. They had the money to give tax benefits to the rich. They had the money for the one percent.”
Throwing a hint to members of Congress seated on the platform, Sharpton encouraged the people to continue marching for jobs, “And if we get tired, we need to sit down in the offices of some of those here.” Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer and Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Marcia Fudge had earlier spoken to the crowd. Several other members were also on the platform.
Sharpton recalled how the U. S. Supreme Court recently gutted the pre-clearance mandate of the Voting Rights Act. He warned that a string of new voter identification requirements in states like North Carolina, Texas and Florida appear to have been enacted in response to the election of America’s first Black President Barack Obama.
There was no problem with voter IDs, when “we voted for Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, [George H. W.] Bush, Clinton, and [George W.] Bush,” he said. “Why when we get to Obama do we need new voter ID laws?”
As the crowd cheered with agreement, Sharpton asked them to press Congress to rewrite the Voting Rights Act so that the significant gains made in the 1960s will be protected.
While dealing strongly with politicians, Sharpton also made it clear that the Black community is not without blame for some of its conditions. He encouraged the youth to respect one another, to respect women and noted how youth are shooting and killing each other for no reason.
“We’ve got some house cleaning to do. And as we clean up our house, we’ll be able to clean up America,” he said.
Each issue hit home with the crowd that stretched from the Lincoln Memorial, past the Tidal Basin and almost to the Washington Monument. Both youth and veteran marchers had hauled signs and placards to the mall, prepared to make their statements. Many T-shirts, banners and signs bore the likeness of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen who was shot and killed last year after being profiled by now acquitted George Zimmerman.
Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, spoke briefly and guardedly from her heart: “As I said before, Trayvon Martin was my son. But, he wasn’t just my son. He’s all of our son and we have to fight for our children,” she said. “It is very important that we not forget that we make sure we are mindful of what’s going on with the laws and remember that God is in control.”
The historic nature of the march and the agenda ahead was especially apparent as Martin Luther King III spoke and the Rev. Bernice King gave the closing prayer. They both recalled their father’s legacy.
“I am humbled by the heavy hand of history. I, like you, continue to feel his presence. I, like you, continue to hear his voice crying out in the wilderness,” he said. “This is not the time for a nostalgic commemoration; nor is it the time for self-congratulatory celebration. The task is not done. The journey is not complete. We can and we must do more.”
King III pointed to stats that underscore America’s economic inequalities that remain. “With 12 percent unemployment rates in the African-American community and 38 percent of all the children of color in this country we know that the dream is far from being realized.”
Rev. Bernice prayed fervently, “We thank you God that the Spirit that inspired those fifty years ago is inspiring us today…We are determined to continue the struggle.”
She continued, “We pray even now Lord God that you would bind us together like never before, regardless of our backgrounds; even regardless of our differences, Father God, give us the strength and the courage and the humility to transcend those differences, Father, that we might be able to join together as a freedom force to continue to move this nation and this world toward creating the beloved community and ultimately the kingdom of God.”
U. S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was arrested 40 times during the civil rights movement and was the only person on the platform who also spoke in 1963, appeared to take up where he left off 50 years ago.
“We cannot give up! We cannot give up! We cannot give in! I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote!..I’m not tired; I’m not weary!” he declared. “The vote is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in society. Use it! You must get out there and push and pull and make America what America should be!”