Thousands of people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial Saturday to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the largest civil rights demonstration in history, the March on Washington.
The original march, which took place on August 28, 1963 and is remembered for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, attracted a crowd of nearly 250,000 people. Saturday’s event was significantly smaller.
“I’m here for the same reasons now that I came 40 years ago, to follow Dr. King’s agenda for America,” said James Adams, a District native. “We’ve made progress since the first march, but not enough.”
Adams attributed the smaller crowd to a lack of advertising, and noted that while the event’s prevailing mood was one of friendliness, the deluge of humanity at the 1963 rally changed the world.
Saturday’s rally wrapped up a weekend of events commemorating the anniversary and featured prayer sessions, teach-ins and speakers. The event was organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King founded to forge an alliance between civil rights leaders from the North and South.
The speaker portion of the rally garnered frequent eruptions of applause from the crowd. Mark Thompson, a local television host, moderated the rally, which included speakers on civil rights, as well as other activism issues, such as the environment and D.C. statehood.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC’s Congressional delegate and an organizer at the 1963 rally, focused on the District’s lack of voting representation, saying, “History does not repeat itself, but it does renew itself. From here, we should take home freedom, and the citizens of this city cannot take home freedom when they can’t even elect a representative.”
Other speakers included the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, as well as other representatives from religious and civil rights organizations.
Martin Luther King III, King Jr.’s son, spoke for nearly a half hour, saying although he was only five at the first march, he knew his father was more than just a dreamer.
“We are here to make America a beloved community, and that means social and economic decency for people of all races,” he said.
King spoke passionately and forcefully, mentioning his siblings, Yolanda, Bernice and Dexter, as well as his mother, Coretta Scott King, who sat on chairs at the steps of the memorial as he spoke.
“It is our jobs to apply the balm of justice to heal the festering sores of oppression in education, labor and health care,” he said.
Security at the event was relatively low, with Metropolitan Police officers on motorbikes and horses patrolling the area; there was no visible violence. The almost inconspicuous police presence was a far cry from the 1963 rally, when thousands of police, fearing rioting from the marchers, turned downtown D.C. into a veritable police state.
Demonstrators of all races shared blankets on the grass, played live music and free-styled, demonstrating a social tolerance similar to the one King spoke of in his “Dream” 40 years earlier.
Political activism played a large role in the festivities, with protest signs and banners addressing a wide array of issues. Cheers could be heard supporting anything from reparations for slavery to gay rights to organized labor to the anti-war movement.
“We’re here to promote social justice and simple living,” said Micah Schweizer, a 26-year-old with social justice group Lutheran Volunteer Corps. “But we’ve seen material on everything: education, healthcare, and veterans’ rights.”
Many activists sported traditional African clothing and dreadlocks, while others wore T-shirts to support their cause. One attendee, who wished to remain anonymous, wore a shirt saying, “I’m tired, I’ve been black all day.”