“We never dreamed that we would be here 50 years later,” said the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, 91, who helped lead a boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, a seminal moment in the civil rights movement. “We never dreamed we would see an African American president.”
Saturday was a day to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the historic Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington, and a vision one man delivered so forcefully that five decades later, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech ranks with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech to Congress as among the most memorable in U.S. history.
“Daddy is smiling up above, knowing that by your presence, you will keep his dream alive,” Martin Luther King III said from the top step of the Lincoln Memorial, where his father’s memorable speech capped the 1963 march. “I stand here today in this sacred place, in my father’s footsteps. I, like you, continue to feel his presence. This is not the time for self-congratulations. We can and must do more.”
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), one of the few major speakers from the 1963
rally still alive, challenged listeners to push back against this year’s Supreme Court decision that struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The court’s 5 to 4 vote freed nine states, most of them in the South, from a requirement that they seek federal approval to change their election laws.
“I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Alabama,” he said, referring to his brutal beating by police in gas masks that was captured by photographers in 1965 and awakened many Americans to repression in the South.
“The vote is precious. It is almost sacred,” said Lewis, who was a student civil rights organizer 50 years ago. “It is the most powerful nonviolent tool that we have. We must say to Congress: Fix the Voting Rights Act.”
His address received a standing ovation.
“Our vote was soaked in the blood of martyrs,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, “and you cannot take it from us now.”
The actual 50th anniversary of the march falls on Wednesday, when President Obama will join former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, among others, to mark the occasion.
As the crowd swelled along the length of the Reflecting Pool and beyond Saturday, it created a mix of participants: those born after the 1963 march; those who had watched the march from afar; others too unaware at that time to have participated; and veterans of the civil rights movement who were mesmerized by the speeches of King and others that long-ago August.