Donna Leinwand, Alistair Barr and Greg Toppo, USA TODAY
Washington-- As she inched toward the security checkpoint that would allow her to bask in the words of three presidents Wednesday afternoon, Toni Asante Lightfoot said, "It could be much worse."
Waiting more than an hour seemed a small price to pay, considering what people had to go through the first time around: Half a century ago, an African-American woman traveling to Washington had to carefully plot a route that would include places that would allow her to eat, sleep and even use a bathroom. "When we put everything in historical perspective, this is just an inconvenience," said Asante Lightfoot, 45.
After 90 minutes, she was in and heading toward the Lincoln Memorial, "just so doggone glad to be here."
Fifty years to the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his spellbinding "I Have a Dream" speech, Asante Lightfoot stood among a large crowd that braved rain on the National Mall to hear civil rights, labor and political leaders and entertainers urge them - sometimes defiantly - to keep fighting for justice and equal rights.
This time around, jobs and voting rights for African Americans shared the spotlight with fights for clean water and air, a living wage, civil rights for gays and lesbians, and an end to homelessness and stop-and-frisk policing policies. President Obama headlined the event and gave an impassioned speech.
King's daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, noted that at the 1963 march, there was "not a single woman on the program." "We have witnessed great strides toward freedom," she said, but "we must keep the sound and the message of freedom and justice going."
Earlier, Al Sharpton told the crowd that Jim Crow "had a son named James Crow Jr., Esq. He writes voting-suppression laws." Likewise, National Urban League President Marc Morial said, "It is time, America, to wake up. Fifty years ago that sleeping giant was awakened, but somewhere along the way we've dozed. We've been quelled by the lullaby of false prosperity and the mirage of economic equality. We fell into a slumber. Somewhere along the way, white sheets were traded for button-down white shirts. Attack dogs and water hoses were traded for Tasers and widespread implementation of stop-and-frisk policies."
The crowd appeared much smaller than the estimated 200,000 who jammed the mall in 1963 at a tumultuous time in U.S. history, an era of separate bathrooms, lunch counters and drinking fountains for whites and blacks, of authorities using billy clubs, firehoses and police dogs to terrorize civil rights marchers in the South, and of murders of activists in their driveways and little girls in church.
The 1963 march focused on what Andrew Young, a close associate of King's and later Atlanta mayor, called "the triple evils of racism, war and poverty." Young said King's speech focused mostly on poverty. "He said that the Constitution was a promissory note to which all of us would fall heir, but that when men and women of color presented their check at the Bank of Justice, it came back marked 'insufficient funds.'
"Fifty years later," Young concluded, "we're still here trying to cash that bad check. Fifty years later, we're still dealing with all kinds of problems, and so we're not here to claim any victory - we're here to simply say that the struggle continues."
As King was ending his speech in 1963, he quoted from the patriotic song My Country 'Tis of Thee and urged his audience to "let freedom ring."
"When we allow freedom to ring - when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last, great God almighty, we are free at last,'" King said.
The civil rights leader was assassinated five years later.