They gathered under crystal-clear skies that set a summer standard for perfection, transfixed by more than a score of speakers whose soaring rhetoric about the pursuit of freedom and justice was inspired by a standard of perfection set 50 years before.
They spoke of beatings and bloodshed, of ground that had been gained and of gains that felt threatened, of a generation that struggled against repression so the next generation might fare better, and of hope for a more perfect future.
“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.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in New Jersey this year, spoke directly Saturday to the young people in the crowd.
“My father told me: ‘Don’t walk around here thinking you hit a triple when you were born on third base,’ ” said Booker, 44. “ ‘You drink from a well you did not dig. There is still work to be done. Don’t sit back and think democracy is a spectator sport.’ ”
It was a message that resonated with Brianna Patterson.
“We weren’t alive 50 years ago when it happened,” said Patterson, 20, who lives in Prince George’s County. “Fifty years from now, we can look back and tell our children we were at the 50th anniversary March on Washington. We are keeping the dream alive.”
Mississippi native Minnie Wright was alive during that troubled era. She remembered that her mother taught her not to internalize the racism she experienced as a child growing up in the Deep South.
“There were certain places that ‘knew how to handle their blacks,’ where you knew to keep your eyes straight ahead” because eye contact with whites was likely to spark confrontation, said Wright, 56.
She recalled watching the original march on a black-and-white television — grasping at 6 years old that it was a big deal, but not understanding why.
Charles Randolph-Wright remembered listening to King’s speech in the basement of his cousin’s house in York, S.C.
“That was the center of activity, not just for our family, but all the budding activists in town,” recalled Randolph-Wright, a playwright in residence at Arena Stage. “I was young and did not realize a movement was starting, but I knew something changed from that day.”
He went on: “Hearing that speech opened the door for us to fight, crawl, push and do whatever we had to do to make it through. I cannot help but imagine the disappointment King would have in seeing how polarized this nation has become. In many ways, I feel we have regressed, but then I see someone who looks like me in the White House and I talk to children whose only image of a president is a man of color, and I am so very grateful.”
Patricia Bent of Charlotte also remembered watching the original march on television. “We can’t take steps back,” she said. “People fought too long for voting rights. People died. We can’t sit back and let their work have no meaning.”
Clarence Ellington was born three years after the 1963 march and grew up hearing about how his father had struggled in segregated South Carolina.
“I’m here for my kids, so they can step up and know how my father, my grandfather and my great-grandmother struggled,” said Ellington, who brought his two children.
The Rev. Stephen C. Holton, an Episcopal priest from New York, said the Trayvon Martin verdict in Florida was a sign of continued racial injustice in America.
“It’s clear that we need to keep on marching,” said Holton, 53, who joined a contingent of marchers from the Washington National Cathedral.
Martin’s death, at 17, and the acquittal of the man who shot him were much on the mind of Angela Hatley, who came by bus from New Haven, Conn., with her 83-year-old mother, Theorene Redic.
“We have a black president, but we can’t send our child to the store at 7:30 p.m. and know he’ll be safe,” she said. “Just going to get candy and you don’t come home — and somehow in our society it’s found justifiable.”
Lana Shells, 69, said she wasn’t able to make the trip to Washington 50 years ago because she couldn’t afford to miss her shift as a ward clerk at the state hospital in Norristown, Pa.
Now president of her local NAACP chapter, Shells pointed to voter ID laws and deepening economic inequality as key issues for black Americans.
“I didn’t think after Dr. King that I’d be here crying over the same issues,” Shells said. “I think we went to sleep and we need to wake up.”
Rick Ramsey, 56, took his son, Justice, to see the movie “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” — inspired by the life of a longtime White House butler — on Friday to give him a sense of the role that race has played in the United States. Saturday, Ramsey brought Justice, Justice’s sister and a friend to the march.
“I know it used to be that black people couldn’t do stuff,” said Justice, 13. “Now, in 2013, we have rights.”
D.C. Council member Marion Barry remembered standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, gazing at a sea of humanity assembled along the Reflecting Pool.
“It was a hot, sunny day in August, much like today,” said Barry (D), the council member for Ward 8 and a former D.C. mayor. He was a graduate student who had spent his summers volunteering with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
He recalled the fervor of the crowd gathered before King as he delivered his “Dream” address.
“The people were uplifted and energized,” Barry said. “I was proud of Dr. King for expressing our frustration, our dreams and our hopes.”
Barry spent Saturday morning at a rally for D.C. statehood, part of a movement that seeks to have the city renamed New Columbia and admitted to the union as the 51st state.
“I came here in 1963 and Washington wasn’t free,” Barry said. “We’re still not free.”
Barry said that the passage of time has brought substantial cultural changes to the District — black-owned businesses thrive and the city’s schools have long been integrated — but that progress has lagged in other areas.
“The poverty rate is higher now than in 1963,” Barry said. “Unemployment is higher than in 1963. The achievement gap is wider than in 1963. The more that seems to change, the more that remains the same.”
At the D.C. statehood rally, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said statehood for the District was also an initiative supported by King.
“While much of Dr. King’s dream has come to fruition for our country, today, sadly, the District of Columbia still languishes without full voting rights, full representation or full democracy,” Gray said
Mark Berman, Emma Brown, Hamil R. Harris and T. Rees Shapiro contributed to this report.