Claudia Hanes from Kentucky holds a placard during a rally to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
(Photo: Jose Luis Magana, AP)
WASHINGTON -- Tens of thousands gathered Saturday on the nation's "front yard," the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial, yearning for a bit of the transcendent sense of racial unity heralded on this spot by Martin Luther King 50 years ago in his "I Have a Dream" speech.
From steps where King spoke, early orators ranging from former NAACP chairman Julian Bond to the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. raised myriad themes of voting rights, widening economic disparity and racial issues in America that, despite so many advances, remain unfinished business to this day.
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Jackson punctuated remarks with the refrain "keep dreaming."
Aging veterans of the original March on Washington gathered with younger generations, amassing a crowd that in contrast was more female, more Hispanic, more diverse by sexual orientation and far more tech-savvy than in 1963.
Sixteen-year-old Qion Nicholson's only knowledge of the original march was what he learned in school. Arriving by bus from Asbury Park, N.J., he said he now feels part of that history going forward.
"I'm grateful to be living in today's era," says Nicholson, of Sayreville. "The (original) march meant so much for our country."
Andrea Williams arrived at the event with what she described as a personal history of marching for labor rights. Today a 34-year-old Army staff sergeant from Queens, N.Y., who served four combat tours in Iraq, she felt fulfilled by all that she saw.
The daughter of a union organizer, she marched with her mother as a child. "My mother instilled in me a sense of action, not just that you want to do something, but act on it," she said, her husband and 4-year-old at her side.
Organizers were planning for nearly 100,000 to attend Saturday. Minutes before key speeches began, buses were backed up still trying to the reach the site. The crowd was expanding east to base of the Washington Monument. People stood a dozen deep along the length of the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial where their forebears cooled their feet in the stifling heat and humidity of the original event. Weather on Saturday was cool and breezy.
The many elderly were assisted down grassy slopes by younger marchers to places where tree shade and folding chairs were waiting. Mixing with Martin Luther King T-shirt salesmen were activists working the crowd with literature discussing racial profiling, "stand-your-ground" laws and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
Marchers streamed in shoulder to shoulder, clutching an array of signs promoting the march, jobs, the DREAM Act and protection of voting rights. Many posters bore the face of slain black teenager Trayvon Martin.
Organizers kept iron-fisted limits on dozens of early speakers to two minutes, cutting microphone feeds if someone went too long. People booed when Julian Bond was shut down in mid-sentence.
Among arrivals was Lillian Reynolds, a minister and social worker from Mount Vernon, N.Y., who said she was there because of goals still unmet.
Literacy rates remain too low and black unemployment too high, she said, moving through tight security for a place to see her son, gospel hip-hop artist JProphet, perform. "Trying to get there and not miss it," Reynolds said.
As Jackson made his way to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he paused with reporters to reflect on how the city expected riots during the original March on Washington.
The mood leading up to today's event was a world away from 1963, when 250,000 descended on the city during a violent summer of police dogs and fire hoses unleashed on demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala. Civil rights leader Medgar Evers was gunned down in front of his family in Jackson, Miss., and President John F. Kennedy attempted to dissuade march organizers from holding the event, fearing violence. Federal troops were amassed outside the city, federal workers sent home and liquor stores closed.
But today's events are not without recent historical backdrop.
The murder acquittal of George Zimmerman in July in his killing of Martin - whose parents are expected to speak to marchers Saturday - was steeped in allegations of racial profiling of the victim by the man who shot him.
Even more applicable, march organizers say, was the Supreme Court's June ruling eliminating crucial elements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, evoking the message of equality efforts left undone.
The issue of gun violence permeated Saturday's event as well. Qion's mother, Katrina Nicholson, who rode the bus Saturday with her son, said she hopes the new event will rekindle attention on gang violence and drug and alcohol abuse in inner cities.
"There's a better way of life, yet we're killing each other," said Nicholson, 41, who works as a security guard. "People need to take responsibility for their actions. No more excuses."
A Pew Research Center poll released this week showed that black Americans are more pessimistic than white Americans about racial progress, with only 26% of African Americans saying that circumstances for blacks have improved in the past five years, down from 39% in 2009. Twenty-one percent said matters have gotten worse.
Two adult sisters attending Saturday's march echoed the view that racial unity is still a far-off dream in America. Marjorie Francis, 36, of Jackson, N.J., lamented the growth in voter identification laws across the country.
"It's a solution to a problem that didn't exist," she says. Said her sister, Maureen Francis, 39, of Monroe N.J., "you always have to be fighting for freedom.
Many participants said they believe the extreme optimism following the election 2008 of the first black president, Barack Obama, has drained away. Others said they hold to the view that seeds of change allowing a black man to lead the country were sown, in part, on that day in 1963.
Riding the bus from Asbury today was William Griffin, 88, who attended the original march, elbowing his way through the crowd to hear King speak.
"At the time," he says, "you wondered whether it was going to do any good, whether it was going to have any results."
The event Griffin's attending Saturday looks different than the one 50 years ago.
Back then, women - such as Rosa Parks and Dorothy Height - marched down Independence Avenue and men down Pennsylvania Avenue. All participants on Saturday are strolling down Independence together, passing the new Martin Luther King Memorial.
"Fifty years ago, women were not up here speaking, but here we are today," Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, told the crowd during her remarks Saturday.
Before this afternoon's walk, speakers will provide direct, flesh-and-blood connections to the lions of the civil rights struggle. Among those speakers are King's oldest living child, Martin Luther King III, 55, and Bernice King, who was 6 months old the day her father delivered his famous speech on Aug. 28, 1963.
Also speaking will be Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil rights worker Medgar Evers, and family of Emmett Till, whose brutal murder in 1955 at 14 for remarks made to a white woman evoked the worst horrors of racial hatred in the South.
Saturday's keynote speakers are nation's first black U.S. attorney general, Eric Holder, and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Even before remarks began, some arriving here were moved to tears. Susan Goodman, a retired tour guide from Manhattan, arrived to honor King's memory and became emotional when she spoke of him Saturday.
"He reached the very heart of people and the very core of the matter," Goodman said.
A march will also be held Wednesday on the true anniversary of the 1963 event with remarks by President Obama and former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter at the Lincoln Memorial.
Arriving Saturday after an overnight bus ride form Hartford, Conn., for a position 100 yards in front of the Lincoln Memorial was John Stewart Jr., 83, who became the first black fire chief of Hartford in 1980 after working his way up the ranks. He missed the first march out of concern, because of embittered white colleagues resentful of a black man as a firefighter, that he would lose his job if he took time off to attend.
"I represent what this is all about," he says. "I feel honored that I'm here. Dr. King inspired me, and I inspired others."