Photo Credit- Erin Robertson
On Saturday, amid a sunny backdrop, I descended on the National Mall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington with tens of thousands of others. We retraced the footsteps of the 250,000 original participants who, undeterred by the sweltering heat of summer of 1963, marched for civil rights.
Preceding the march entitled "The National Action to Reclaim the Dream," Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network, Martin Luther King III, and the NAACP arranged for a numerous prominent speakers including King, Sharpton, Attorney General Eric Holder, Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) to gather on the white marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial. There, they addressed the crowd, and reflected on and reaffirmed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech, "Normalcy Never Again," commonly known as the revolutionary "I Have a Dream" address.
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In his speech, King delivered these famous words: "I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream."
A half-century later, much of King's dream for positive change and greater equality has been realized, and many of the speeches applauded America's evolution in race relations.
The 50-year time lapse revealed a dramatic shift in attendees' fashion sensibilities. The original marchers donned fine threads like sharp suits, elegantly flowing dresses, and carefully coiffed and pressed hair. No longer are such displays of sophistication and respectability required to disarm, command credibility, and symbolize collective worth. Instead, the crowd donned casual attire with images of King, President Obama, Trayvon Martin, and other black political martyrs proudly emblazoned on colorful, commemorative t-shirts.
As I walked among the throngs of people, inching my way closer to the orators, I was encouraged to see considerable diversity. The crowd did not look like pepper with a dash of salt as seen in old photographs, but rather was an all-seasoned mix.
Photo Credit- The U.S. National Archives
For example, I met Allie O'Neil, a 22-year-old white girl originally from Birmingham, Ala., the city where the bus boycott sparked the genesis of the Civil Rights movement that escalated into widely broadcasted clashes between black youth and white police. That she felt moved to attend the march demonstrates considerable progress.
"I feel like it's important to be here to celebrate people who have fought a lot for civil rights and for human rights in general. And I think it's important to be here, still years after the fact, to re-initiate the fight and the push towards human rights," O'Neil said.
O'Neil noted that in the 20 years since she has lived in the South, she has noticed many improvements, particularly for the influx of Latino and refugee communities that are thriving and gaining access to more resources.
Anis Ahmed, a Maryland resident who emigrated to the U.S. from Bangladesh 29 years ago, jubilantly turned out to celebrate the momentous occasion, representing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) of Montgomery County, Md.
Ahmed acknowledged that without the blood, sweat, and tears shed by civil rights activists backed by organizations like the NAACP several decades ago, as well as the transformative words spoken by Dr. King, his ability to offer a better life for his children could not have been realized.
"This is a great testament for all folks throughout the world and in this country and especially like me. I owe all of this to the 50th anniversary to celebrate and honor because without this movement, I couldn't be here today," said Ahmed.
Many attendees embraced the memorial as an opportunity to champion their causes on hand drawn or printed signs. The issues varied from campaigning against stop-and-frisk practices, to calling for immigration reform, to appealing for LGBT marriage rights.
Photo Credit- Erin Robertson
In recent months, there have been several setbacks such as the watering down of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the acquittal of George Zimmerman that unleashed a firestorm of outrage. Speakers invoked those stumbling blocks and reminded audience members that much remains to be accomplished to ensure equal opportunities and protections under the law for all people.
The Supreme Court's decision to overturn parts of the 1965 Voting Rights legislation inspired Robert and Gail Lamont, both white, to board an all-night bus from Chicago to Washington for the event.
"Democracy is not a spectator sport," Mrs. Lamont cited as one of three reasons that she and Mr. Lamont traveled from their home state.
The Lamonts met while teaching at a segregated black high school in the West side of Chicago where Mrs. Lamont encouraged her students to memorize verses written by black poets like Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks.
The Lamonts came of age during the Civil Rights movement, and worked tirelessly for Obama's campaigns. They went to Iowa nearly 10 times in the past two presidential election cycles.
"It was very important to me to drag my white husband's face to doorways in Iowa, so that Iowans know that white men were voting for President Obama too," said Mrs. Lamont.
"There are many more white people in this audience today than there was 50 years ago. That makes me happy," Mrs. Lamont continued. "There are people who have changed their personal decisions in their lives and wanted to be here today. Other progress I see are people being hired in many more positions that weren't available to African-Americans 50 years ago or even 10 years ago."
Like the Lamonts, others traveled considerable distances to attend the event. Eleanor Lundy-Wade bused in from Philadelphia, Pa. She was particularly excited to hear Rev. Joseph Lowery, who was at original march, speak.
"We've come to Washington to agitate," the 92-year-old and founder of Southern Christian Leadership Conference said. "And we're going home to agitate."
Lundy-Wade described the sort of "agitation" and progress that she would like to see: "If we can help every kid to graduate at least from college, that would be wonderful and that would be a big progress because then everybody would at least have the same minimal standard of excellence."
Jim Stowe, director of the Office of Human Rights for Montgomery County, Md. recalled watching the Civil Rights movement unfold on the evening news as a 7-year-old. In his lifetime, he has witnessed a lot of changes for the better.
"A lot of progress has been made, but the problem is if we don't keep making more progress, then whatever progress you would have made becomes null. It becomes pretty much stuck in a rut. And so, we must constantly be in a mode of improvement, of going forward, of trying to right wrongs, and (we) can't ever be content with where we are. There's always a better place, there always is," Stowe said.
For Stowe, progress looks like arriving at a place where people challenge themselves to grow comfortable interacting with others who think and act differently as well as fight as fervently for others' rights as much as they advocate for their own.
After the speakers concluded their remarks, I made my way to to the Washington Monument. Before dispersing, I noticed an older, yet vivacious woman holding a sign that read "We Marched in 1963, March on Washington."
Photo Credit- Erin Robertson
I learned that Sarah J. Davison attended the march 50 years ago as a 15-year-old president of NAACP youth council in North Little Rock, Ark. She attended the original march because she was livid that she and her black peers were treated as second-class citizens by being forced to sit in the back of buses, drink from "colored-only" drinking fountains, and use second-hand books at her segregated black high school.
Fast-forward 50 years: Davison said she never expected to see a black president in the White House, but also did not anticipate seeing the diluting of the Voting Rights Act. While Davison said she is disappointed to witness such a rollback in the progressive momentum she fought tirelessly for as a youth, she still believes that America is a great place to live. She still loves her country, and expects it to move forward propelled by its youth.
"I think we'll move forward from today because it's the people that move the country forward, so if we can make sure the young people, the adults, everybody is involved and says, 'I want to make a difference.' If we start letting young people know that they’re [here] to make a difference and they get involved, I think we will move forward in a more positive direction,” said Davison.'I always [tell] young people, you weren't born just to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom. You were born to make a difference in the world."