Photo courtesy: Getty Images
WASHINGTON - Tens of thousands gathered Saturday on the nation's "front yard," the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial, yearning for a bit of that transcendent sense of racial unity heralded on this spot by the Rev. Martin Luther King 50 years ago in his "I Have a Dream" speech.
From the memorial steps where King spoke, remarks by a host of early speakers ranging from former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond to the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. touched on an myriad themes of voting rights, widening economic disparity, how the issue of race in America, despite so many advances, remains unfinished business to this day.
Aging veterans of the original March on Washington gathered with younger generations, amassing a crowd that in contrast is more female, more Hispanic, more diverse by sexual orientation and far more tech-savvy than 50 years ago.
Rumbling into the city on a bus this morning from Asbury Park, N.J., was 16-year-old Qion Nicholson, whose only knowledge of the original event was gained from studies. He says he now feels like part of an historical addendum.
"I'm grateful to be living in today's era," says Nicholson, of Sayreville. "The (original) march meant so much for our country."
A few hours before the speeches were set to begin, crowds lined the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where their historical forebearers cooled their feet in the stifling heat and humidity of the original event. Weather Saturday was cool and breezy in Washington.
Organizers were planning for nearly 100,000 to attend Saturday. Marchers streamed in shoulder-to-shoulder clutching an array of signs, bearing words promoting the march, more jobs, the Dream Act and protection of voting rights. Some signs bore the face of slain black teenager Trayvon Martin.
Among those arriving was Lillian Reynolds, a minister and social worker from Mt. 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 before moving off in a rush to get through tight security and see her son, gospel hip-hop artist JProphet, slated to perform. "Trying to get there and not miss it," Reynolds said.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., making his way to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, paused with reporters to reflect on tensions around the original March on Washington, when the city expected riots.
Minutes later, as he joined a series of initial speakers limited to two minutes of remarks, Jackson punctuated his remarks with the refrain "keep dreaming."
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 Evans 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 black-on-black violence permeated Saturday's event as well. Qion's mother, Katrina Nicholson, riding 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 that 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 believe the extreme optimism following the election 2008 of the first black president, Barack Obama, has drained away. Others 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, however, will look different than the one 50 years ago.
Whereas back then, women - such as Rosa Parks and Dorothy Height - marched down Independence Avenue and men down Pennsylvania Avenue, all participants Saturday will stroll down Independence, passing the new Martin Luther King Memorial.
Before that walk this afternoon, speakers will provide direct, flesh-and-blood connections to the lions of the civil rights struggle a half-century past. Among them, King's oldest living child, Martin Luther King III, 55, and Bernice King, who was six months old the day her father delivered his famous speech on Aug. 28, 1963.
Also speaking will be Myrlie Ever-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.
Keynote speakers will be the 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 in 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."