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Thousands Gather To Mark '63 Civil Rights March

Aug 25, 2013
Originally published on August 25, 2013 9:22 am




This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Tens of thousands of people from across the country came to the National Mall yesterday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. At that historic march, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered one of the most iconic speeches in American history.

CROWD: Yeah.

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: One day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.


MARTIN: But yesterday's Realize the Dream march wasn't a retread. The crowd that gathered in downtown Washington looked and sounded different, and had a different variety of causes and passions. But they banded together to honor that day in 1963, and to hear current and future activists talk about what the next 50 years should bring.

NPR's Allison Keyes was there.


ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: The rally was held under bright, sunny skies in front of the Lincoln Memorial, just where King and around 250,000 people stood on August 28th, 1963.

Democratic Georgia Congressman John Lewis was there that day and fired up yesterday's crowd. Referring to a recent Supreme Court ruling striking down part of the Voting Rights Act, Lewis told the crowd they can't allow the loss of the precious right to vote.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS: You cannot stand by. You cannot sit down. You got to stand up. Speak up. Speak out and get in the way. Make some noise.


KEYES: Lewis was among other lions of the civil rights movement who spoke, including veteran activist Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery.

REVEREND DR. JOSEPH LOWERY, CO-FOUNDER, SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE: We come to Washington to commemorate. We're going back home. One more time, we...

KEYES: King's eldest son, Martin Luther King III, was among the speakers at this march convened by the NAACP and Reverend Al Sharpton's National Action Network, among others. Sharpton told the crowd the old America - the one only for white males and English-speakers - has passed away even though some are still fighting for those values.

REVEREND AL SHARPTON: It's time to march for a new America. It's time to organize for a new America. It's time to register and vote for a new America.

KEYES: National Urban League President Marc Morial told the audience they can't allow the gains of the past to be lost.

MARC MORIAL: We must redeem the dream because 21st century forces are at work to eliminate and reverse our economic progress through a vicious assault on or nation's poorest, weakest, most disadvantaged and dispossessed citizens.

CROWD: (Chanting) No justice, no peace. No justice, no peace...

KEYES: As you could hear from the divergent chants, a lot of things were on the table, from immigration reform, LGBT issues, women's rights and economic equality.

Joan Mulholland participated in sit-ins in 1963 and was here for the march that year. She says this gathering was different and more diverse.

JOAN MULHOLLAND: There's a lot more relaxed and varied crowd - a lot more causes. But the way people are banding together and the fellowship amongst people is the same. We're all in it together.


KEYES: But some here said they felt a disconnect because of the way the crowd was managed; 2013 security fences and huge media risers separated the crowd from those they'd come to see. Instead of a sea of people crowding against the reflecting pool and swarming up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, barriers created open zones between the people and the water and the lower steps. It made it tough to figure how many people were there.


KEYES: Still, a festive atmosphere permeated the cheerful crowd as the civil rights leaders walked arm and arm over to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. People played drums, chanted and sang.

Nicole Thomas from Maryland was grinning as she shouldered her way through the throng.

NICOLE THOMAS: We were here for inauguration, this surpasses that. And the energy that's in the air of change and moving forward and changing this country for us.

REVEREND DR. EMORY LAMONT ELLS: I think it was extraordinary.

KEYES: Reverend Dr. Emory Lamont Ells brought 10 buses from a Baptist church in New York City, and says the rally and march show the longevity of the battle for freedom and equality.

ELLS: Fifty years after Dr. King did this, I think that Dr. King is smiling in his grave this afternoon.

KEYES: This Wednesday, on the actual anniversary of the march, President Obama and the King family will speak at a worldwide Let Freedom Ring celebration.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

MARTIN: You can find more of our coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and hear collection of more than 100 songs inspired by the civil rights movement on our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.