The March on Washington, 50 Years Later

Martin Luther King, Jr. (left), Senator Everett Dirksen, R-Ill. (right), and John Lewis (far right) meet shortly before King's "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington in August 1963.
National Journal
Mike Magner
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Mike Magner
Aug. 18, 2013, 7:37 a.m.

For the next 10 days Wash­ing­ton will be trans­por­ted a half-cen­tury back in time to re­live one of the most power­ful and de­fin­ing mo­ments in Amer­ic­an his­tory.

The March on Wash­ing­ton brought more than a quarter-mil­lion people to the na­tion’s cap­it­al on Aug. 28, 1963, for what many con­sider a key turn­ing point in the civil-rights move­ment. The his­tor­ic rally was high­lighted by the “I Have a Dream” speech de­livered by the Rev. Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. on the steps of the Lin­coln Me­mori­al.

Few real­ized it at the time — King’s speech did not even make the front page of The Wash­ing­ton Post the next day — but the calls for equal justice that echoed across the Na­tion­al Mall 50 years ago would be at least par­tially real­ized a year later with en­act­ment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Now, in the face of some erosion of the land­mark law and dur­ing a time of on­go­ing ra­cial ten­sions in the United States, hun­dreds of thou­sands of march­ers plan to re­turn to Wash­ing­ton to com­mem­or­ate the events of 1963 with not one, but two massive ral­lies on the Mall and a week-long series of ser­vices, dis­cus­sions, and cel­eb­ra­tions centered around the theme of “Jobs, Justice, and Free­dom.”

“The re­sponse to our call to com­mem­or­ate the March on Wash­ing­ton and my fath­er’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech has been over­whelm­ing,” said Ber­nice A. King, who was ex­actly five months old when her fath­er gave his best-known speech. “We ex­pect hun­dreds of thou­sands of people to join us in the na­tion’s cap­it­al for this his­tor­ic event, and many more to take part world­wide in their com­munit­ies.”

King, who now heads the fam­ily’s King Cen­ter in At­lanta, has been the driv­ing force be­hind the com­mem­or­a­tion events that kick off in Wash­ing­ton on Wed­nes­day with a wor­ship ser­vice at the Mt. Airy Baptist Church just north of the Cap­it­ol.

But since the ini­tial or­gan­iz­ing meet­ing about a year ago in At­lanta, at­ten­ded by about 30 civil-rights lead­ers, at least 200 people have been work­ing stead­ily to plan a series of events that would ap­pro­pri­ately mark the 50th an­niversary of the March on Wash­ing­ton, said King Cen­ter spokes­man Steve Klein.

The biggest event in terms of par­ti­cipants will be the “Real­ize the Dream March and Rally” to be held Sat­urday on the Na­tion­al Mall. Or­gan­ized by Mar­tin Luth­er King III, King’s old­est son, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, lead­er of the Na­tion­al Ac­tion Net­work based in Har­lem, “it is go­ing to be huge,” Klein said. “Nobody knows” how many people will show up, but it will al­most cer­tainly be in the hun­dreds of thou­sands, he said.

Par­ti­cipants will gath­er at the Lin­coln Me­mori­al on Sat­urday morn­ing “to stand to­geth­er against the re­cent at­tack on voter rights, against Stand Your Ground and ra­cial pro­fil­ing, and to con­tin­ue to raise aware­ness on un­em­ploy­ment, poverty, gun vi­ol­ence, im­mig­ra­tion, gay rights and oth­er crit­ic­al is­sues af­fect­ing our na­tion,” the Na­tion­al Ac­tion Net­work said in a state­ment about the rally.

On Fri­day the “Glob­al Free­dom Fest­iv­al” be­gins in West Po­tom­ac Park and will con­tin­ue through the week­end. The fest­iv­al is sponsored by the King Cen­ter and groups in­volved in the 1963 march, in­clud­ing the NAACP, the South­ern Chris­ti­an Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence, and the Na­tion­al Urb­an League.

The main event will be the “Let Free­dom Ring Com­mem­or­a­tion and Call to Ac­tion Ce­re­mony” at the Lin­coln Me­mori­al on the af­ter­noon of  Aug. 28. Pres­id­ent Obama will speak from the same spot where King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech. He will be joined by former Pres­id­ents Carter and Clin­ton and a host of polit­ic­al and cul­tur­al lead­ers, in­clud­ing act­or Jam­ie Foxx and Lynda John­son Robb, daugh­ter of the pres­id­ent who signed the Civil Rights Act.

Some mem­bers of Con­gress are ex­pec­ted to par­ti­cip­ate in the week of events, even though the Au­gust re­cess has most law­makers away from Wash­ing­ton. The Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus held a com­mem­or­a­tion of the March on Wash­ing­ton be­fore re­cess began and many of its mem­bers plan to par­ti­cip­ate in Sat­urday’s march, said CBC spokes­wo­man Ay­ofemi Kirby.

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