Crowd gathers to mark 60th anniversary of King’s March
Speakers at Lincoln Memorial voice fears that King’s dream is newly threatened
Sixty years after Martin Luther King Jr. led 250,000 people in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, thousands of people began gathering again at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday to declare that King’s dream is newly threatened and the fruits of his work are at risk.
On a warm August day much like the one 60 years ago, marchers came from distant cities to the site where King stood to assert that his crusade was being assailed, that court rulings, legislation and political extremism have undone or stymied the racial and social progress of the last half-century.
“America has been comatose,” one speaker declared.
Another, Danette Anthony Reed, head of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, said: “We will not allow the dream to be deferred by brazen attempts to take us backwards.”
The rally’s leaders said the march was not a commemoration, but a reassertion of the demands made at the Memorial in 1963.
College students, a retired waitress, a retired college advisor, members of Black sororities and fraternities, among others, converged before the memorial, carrying signs that read “Stop Voter Suppression,” “Immigration is not a crime” and “Protect LGBTQ+ families."
The day grew hot and humid as the sun rose over the Washington Monument in the distance and the Lincoln Reflecting pool, where in 1963 sweltering marchers cooled their feet.
“It feels like we’ve gone backwards,” King’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, said before the rally. “Dad talked about eradicating the triple evils of poverty, racism and violence. … Just about any problem that we are faced with in our nation falls under one of those categories."
“We have to be more vigilant,” he said. “We have to be more engaged, we have to be more — in fact we are — more determined than ever to actually address these great issues.”
King, his wife, Arndrea Waters King, and King Jr.'s 15-year-old granddaughter, Yolanda Renee King are expected to speak near the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963. The main program was slated to start at 11 a.m. at the memorial. The speeches are expected to last until about 1 p.m., then shortly after that, the march is scheduled to begin.
Marchers will begin their trek at Lincoln Circle NW and continue south on 23rd Street toward West Potomac Park by the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
Andrew Young Jr., one of the last living Civil Rights leaders of his generation, is on the agenda to deliver a speech. Young, 91, was an aide to King and stood at the foot of the memorial steps as he spoke that day.
Other speakers include civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and president of the National Action Network; House Minority Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who is the first Black lawmaker to lead a congressional conference in the United States; and Assistant Democratic Leader and civil rights leader Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.). Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League and Janet Murguía, the CEO of UnidosUS, a Latino civil rights and advocacy organization are also part of the program.
Tens of thousands of people from across the country came to the 1963 March, a gathering that helped spur the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the most important Civil Rights legislation since the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction.
It outlawed segregation in theaters, restaurants and hotels, according to the National Archives. It banned discrimination in employment and ended segregation in public places such as swimming pools, libraries and public schools.
Organizers of Saturday’s March had estimated that thousands of people would arrive on nearly 300 buses bringing people from states including Georgia, Pennsylvania and New York. More than 1,000 students from at least two dozen historically Black colleges and universities are also expected, according to a march spokesperson.
The Kings said they worry about the nation’s future and what they see as an erosion of democracy, including by state laws that critics say make voting more difficult and limit the way Black history can be taught in schools, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the backlash to expanded LGBTQ rights, gun violence, school boards banning books and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
They plan to call on Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation — something they have sought for years, especially as the Supreme Court in 2013 invalidated a critical part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The 1963 March was largely planned and executed by A. Philip Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and longtime dean of the Civil Rights movement, and chief organizer Bayard Rustin.
That Wednesday, the country was still trying to drag itself out of its 340-year legacy of the enslavement of millions of African Americans. One marcher getting off a train in Union station said “this is the greatest day since Emancipation.”
Even 100 years apart, the two events felt closely connected. It had been a bitter struggle since Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation of partial emancipation for the nation’s enslaved. A century of racial violence, oppression, segregation and discrimination had followed and still menaced African Americans.
In June 1963, 37-year-old Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated by a Ku Klux Klan member outside Evers’ home in Jackson, Miss. The day before, Alabama Gov. George Wallace had tried to physically block the integration of the University of Alabama.
In Birmingham, Ala., that spring, police used dogs and fire hoses to try to disperse demonstrators, many of them children, and imprisoned hundreds who were protesting the city’s racist and segregationist policies.
King and other Civil Rights leaders had been arrested in Birmingham in April and jailed for parading without a permit. Confined under harsh conditions, King wrote his historic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here,” he wrote. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever,” he wrote. “The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro.”
“The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them,” King wrote. “So let him march.”
Tens of thousands did so. They came in buses — 1,500 by one estimate — by train, by car and on foot. They came from all over the country, many wearing dresses, suits and ties, as if headed to church.
People flowed along both sides of the Reflecting Pool toward the Lincoln Memorial like two rivers, one observer said. They jammed the Mall back to the Washington Monument. They sat on the ground and were perched in trees.
They brought their children, and crowds from New York brought thousands of cheese sandwiches.
The throng was mostly Black, but included many White residents. They were joined by folk singers, stars from Hollywood and representatives from labor unions, reportedly among them, the Vermont Stone Cutters Association.
They sang “We Shall Overcome,” locked hands and swayed back and forth.
And they heard King thunder his prayer that one day all God’s children might join hands and sing in the words of the old Black spiritual, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last!”
The next day, The Washington Post said on its editorial pages:
“No one could hear the scourging words spoken yesterday by A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King and others without a sense of guilt and grief and shame.
“There is a magnificent opportunity at hand to cut out once and for all a cancer in America, demeaning and degrading to all Americans.”