On the anniversary of the iconic March on Washington, civil rights leaders and a diverse coalition of allies convened at the historic gathering site to honor the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and advocate for renewed commitment to social justice. The event– convened by King’s Drum Major Institute and the National Action Network (NAN)– aimed to rekindle the spirit of the 1963 march, which played a pivotal role in advancing civil rights and voting rights legislation.
The original March on Washington, a cornerstone of the civil rights movement, drew approximately 250,000 participants in 1963. Its influence paved the way for significant legislative milestones, including the passage of federal civil and voting rights laws in the 1960s.
The erosion of voting rights, recent Supreme Court rulings that impact affirmative action and abortion rights, and the rise of hate and violence against marginalized communities, however, punctuate the current commemoration.
‘We’ve Still Got to Get this Right’
Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of the civil rights icon, along with his sister Bernice King, visited their father’s monument in Washington on the eve of the event.
Bernice King shared her reflections, stating, “I see a man still standing in authority and saying, ‘We’ve still got to get this right.’”
Addressing the urgency of the occasion, King III emphasized, “This is not a traditional commemoration. This really is a rededication.” Among the featured speakers was Ambassador Andrew Young, a close adviser to Dr. King during the original march and a key figure in the civil rights movement. Leaders from the NAACP and the National Urban League also delivered impactful remarks.
Arndrea Waters King, King III’s wife, also addressed the tens of thousands on the mall.
“We are here to liberate the soul of the nation, the soul of democracy from those forces who want to have us all go backwards and perish rather than go forward as sisters and brothers,” she stated. “We will never betray those who marched for us, fought for us, lived for us, died for us. We are the children and grandchildren of their struggles, and we will be worthy of their sacrifices.”
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York also spoke during the event.
“We’re here today to fight for voting rights,” urged Jeffries, the first Black congressperson to lead a major political party in Congress. “We’re here today to fight for civil rights. We’re here today to fight for reproductive rights. We’re here today to fight for workers’ rights,” he said.
Commemorating 60 Years of the ‘Dream,’ Goals in 2023
Ahead of the event, several organizers engaged in discussions with Attorney General Merrick Garland and Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the civil rights division. The talks encompassed crucial issues like voting rights, policing reform, and addressing redlining practices.
The commemoration served as a prelude to the 60th anniversary of the original March on Washington, which President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris observed on Monday, Aug. 28. There, Biden and Harris engaged with organizers of the 1963 march as well as members of the King family, aiming to honor the legacy of the event and its enduring impact on the struggle for civil rights.
As the Rev. Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, reflected on the continuous observance of March on Washington anniversaries, he recalled a promise he made to King’s now late widow Coretta Scott King. Twenty-three years ago, she urged him and Martin Luther King III to continue the movement’s legacy.
Bernice King, CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, acknowledged the weariness that can accompany the enduring fight for civil rights.
She invoked her mother’s wisdom, stating, “Mother said, struggle is a never-ending process… Vigilance is the answer.”
After the successful and inspirational 1963 March on Washington, the challenges the civil rights movement faced weren’t confined to the past; history revealed moments of triumph and tragedy.
Following Dr. King’s landmark “I Have a Dream” speech, at the March on Washington in 1963, dark incidents such as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham and the abduction and murder of civil rights workers in Mississippi underscored the ongoing struggle.
Those tragedies spurred the passage of pivotal legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Despite progress since 1963, this year, equity, voting rights, women’s rights, economic and climate justice were among the many topics emphasized during the march. The plaza of the Lincoln Memorial was a diverse quilt of people from many walks of life, who showed up to witness history and make their voices heard.
Among the crowd were two women sisters who were connected by blood and the colors of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
“This is a historical event,” said Clara Elmore Baine, standing next to her sister Irene Elmore. The sisters came from South Carolina and Georgia.
“I am here to represent Delta Sigma Theta because we have a big interest in voting rights,” Clara Elmore continued. “We have to make a difference now because most of the people here today were not here years ago.”
Some Longtime Freedom Fighters Not Included in Official March Program
Notably absent from the program were several individuals who have long served as freedom fighters, such as Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. and the Rev. Peter Johnson, a close aide to civil rights giants former U.S. Congressman, Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, another prominent civil rights-era figure, wasn’t expected to attend due to ongoing health concerns. However other living civil rights leaders, despite their significant contributions to the movement, did not speak during the commemoration.
Some longtime freedom fighters noted that excluding certain longtime leaders sheds light on the challenge of preserving historical continuity and recognizing all those who played a role.
Chavis was spotted among the crowd giving a hug to Larry Hirsh, a Jewish man, who was also at the March in 1963.
“We were here 60 years ago, and we were both 15,” Hirsh said to Chavis.
“As I reflect back on the last 60 years there is a tendency to underestimate the progress we have made,” Chavis told the Informer. “We still have problems, racism is still alive, antisemitism is still alive and hatred is still alive. However we have made significant progress. C.T. Vivian defined the movement as ‘people moving,’ and here we are, 60 years later, still moving.”
“We are a much more diverse nation than we were 60 years ago,” Chavis added. “Overall I don’t see incremental progress I see substantive progress.”
“You can’t live in the past, you have to learn from the past,” Chavis emphasized.
Fight ‘Until Hell Freezes Over’
America’s “Black Attorney General,” civil rights lawyer Ben Crump embraced his hard-earned moniker, whipping the crowd into a frenzy by insisting that he would fight “until hell freezes over.”
“As your attorney general, I declare now more than ever, that we must be unapologetic defenders of Black life, liberty, and humanity,” Crump remarked. “Just like they try to ban our Black history, we must tell them without Black history, you would not have American history. Just as the fight for the families of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tyre Nichols and so many others, Americans, [we] must now fight for Black literature and culture.”
The Rev Jamal Bryant, pastor of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church attended the march with plenty of freedom fighting in him. He was unapologetic in his criticism of politicians and the way some leaders are contributing to systemic racism.
“If you want to put somebody on a bus it should be Ted Cruz for putting Black and brown people under the bus,” Bryant said. “We came today to serve an indictment on Clarence Thomas. He is not worthy of Thurgood Marshall’s shoes. His wife is an unindicted co-conspirator.”
“Twenty-five billion is getting ready to go to the Ukraine, but not anybody is saying anything about what is going on in Somalia, in Niger, in Congo,” Bryant added. “There needs to be an indictment against record companies who try to sweep away conscious hip-hop.”
In terms of progress, Bryant said, “We lasted through the school-to-prison pipeline, we lasted through Donald Trump, we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors who could not stop in hotels, could not eat in restaurants, but we come now, not just from Morehouse, Hampton and Howard, but we come now from John Hopkins, and Yale and Pittsburgh.”
“Sixty years later I don’t want to be here celebrating,” he emphasized.