WASHINGTON—Tens of thousands of people from around the world converged on the National Mall Wednesday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
“Because they marched, America changed,” said President Barack Obama, delivering remarks at the base of the Lincoln Memorial at 3:05 p.m.—the same time King gave his address 50 years prior.
Wednesday’s events, dubbed the “Let Freedom Ring” ceremony, included many of King’s family members and wrapped up a week of festivities in Washington to mark the anniversary of the march. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter addressed the crowd, as did the lone surviving speaker from the original rally—John Lewis, a Democratic congressman from Georgia.
“Sometime I hear people saying nothing has changed, but for someone to grow up the way I grew up in the cotton fields of Alabama to now be serving in the United States Congress makes we want to tell them come and walk in my shoes,” said Lewis, 73, who was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when he spoke at the original rally. “Come walk in the shoes of those who were attacked by police dogs, fire hoses, and nightsticks, arrested and taken to jail.”
Lewis, one of the original Freedom Riders, was known as one of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders who helped plan the 1963 march. With more than 200,000 participants, it was the largest rally in American history up to that point. Subsequent marches have produced more people—the annual March for Life, for example, has drawn about 400,000 numerous times—but few, if any, have matched the March on Washington’s effect on the country.
“The impact of that march has allowed us to be where we are today,” James Spence, an African-American middle school principal from Dinwiddie, Va., told me. “The generation before us and the generation before them has … opened the doors for me to be a middle school principal at the age of 35.”
Scores of venders lined the sidewalks, selling everything from commemorative T-shirts and pins to food and ponchos as intermittent rain lightly fell on the nation’s capital. Much of the memorabilia commemorated King and the March on Washington, but Barack Obama and Trayvon Martin gear was almost as plentiful.
Most attendees who spoke with me said they see the progress the country has made on race relations, but several pointed to Martin’s shooting death last year as an indication that there’s still work to be done.
“It’s a bit sad that it seems like it hasn’t progressed from the rate from 1963 that it should have,” said John Fergusson, an Australian construction worker visiting the United States. “A lot of black Americans are still disadvantaged.”
Fergusson and his wife, Janet, extended their stay in Washington to take part in Wednesday’s events. They said most Australians are very supportive of the civil rights movement, even as their country faces its own problem of providing equal opportunities to indigenous people.
African-Americans made up an estimated 90 percent of the crowd at the 1963 march, but Wednesday’s gathering included a variety of skin colors. Most people appeared to be younger than 50 and older attendees could be heard telling stories to younger ones.
Sisters Elaine Marie Dédé of New Orleans and Casandra Dédé of Atlanta said they believe many young African-Americans don’t fully appreciate what previous generations experienced.
“I don’t think they have grasped what we’ve been through,” said Elaine, who was 13 when she watched the 1963 march on television from New Orleans. “It was kind of laid out for them.”
She stressed the importance of keeping alive the memories of what happened during the civil rights movement.
“I knew what it was not to be able to go into a store and try on clothes [and] I wasn’t able to drink from certain water fountains,” she said, recalling stories of others who were beaten and jailed. “We’ve been through a lot.”