The March Carries On

Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III hope to re-create the power of the 1963 March on Washington. After months of spontaneous local protests, will a national march speak to a new generation?

The Rev. Al Sharpton set aside his face mask but kept on his protective black latex gloves as he gripped yet another funeral lectern. “To everything there is a time,” he mused. Ecclesiastes 3:1. He dared to hope that maybe, finally, the time was now.

He had almost lost track of how many occasions he had stood like this before caskets of Black men killed by police. The chain of death stretched back at least to 1999, when Amadou Diallo, an innocent, unarmed 22-year-old, was shot 19 times by officers outside his Bronx apartment in a case of mistaken identity. Sharpton had done his best to make the episode a cause celebre by leading demonstrations. But the officers were acquitted, and after numerous protests, the case faded. Others followed: Sean Bell ... Ramarley Graham ... Eric Garner ... Michael Brown ... Stephon Clark. After each death, Sharpton wondered whether a national movement might take off, only to be disappointed when it didn’t. Now the sadly familiar rituals were unfolding once again, on June 4, here in a Minneapolis sanctuary, where George Floyd’s metallic gold coffin glinted in the national spotlight.

“Critics would say, ‘All Al Sharpton wants is publicity,’ ” he told the audience as he eased into his eulogy for Floyd. “Well, that’s exactly what I want, because nobody calls me to keep a secret. People call me to blow up issues.”

By then, 10 days after Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer pressing his knee to Floyd’s neck, the tragedy was blowing up into an unprecedented multiracial, multigenerational, urban-rural uprising. Hundreds of thousands of people had taken to the streets in hundreds of cities to say Black lives matter. Sharpton sensed that a movement for lasting change in American policing was finally at hand, thanks to the potent combination of a grisly video, a provocative president and a pandemic revealing even greater inequities. The question was how to amplify and sustain the passion for change over the summer and past Election Day to achieve concrete goals — and how to expand the conversation beyond policing to broader failures of racial equity and American democracy.

Sharpton sensed that a movement for lasting change in American policing was finally at hand, thanks to the potent combination of a grisly video, a provocative president and a pandemic revealing even greater inequities.

“George Floyd’s story has been the story of Black folks, because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being is you kept your knee on our neck,” Sharpton said, his voice detonating into a roar, as the audience leaped to its feet and people shouted, “Preach, Rev!”

He saluted Martin Luther King III, who was in the audience. “I’m glad Martin the Third is here today,” Sharpton said. “Because on August 28th, the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington, we’re going back to Washington, Martin. That’s where your father stood in the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial and said, ‘I have a dream.’ Well, we’re going back this August 28th to restore and recommit that dream.”

The audience erupted with applause. Someone sitting next to King clapped him on the shoulder while King’s chest heaved with deep, emotional breaths. The announcement of a big national march was a surprise. Commemorating major anniversaries of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is commonplace — King and Sharpton led a march on the 50th in 2013 — but the 57th hardly qualifies as major. Sharpton had in mind a bigger agenda than mere commemoration. He had discussed the possibility with King and a few others. But no decision to go public had been made. There was no plan, no budget, no permit. And there was a pandemic.

“I didn’t know I was going to announce it until the moment,” Sharpton told me a couple of weeks later. “I started thinking on that platform that people are paying attention. We got a caustic president. This is the time. If we can’t get real national legislation now, I don’t know what else could do it.”

For the first time since 1963, a civil rights march has the potential to come close to the original in leaving a lasting impact — not just by paving the way for legislative victories, but by braiding disparate moral dramas and individual stories from local communities into a teeming tapestry on America’s front lawn. And since it comes in a presidential election year — unlike the original — this march will be charged by the politics of the moment, poised to channel resistance to President Trump’s record of race baiting into a massive get-out-the-vote effort.

Still, this will be no easy test of the relevance of a 57-year-old organizing tactic. The 1963 march pioneered the now-familiar ritual of elevating all manner of causes — from peace and women’s rights to calls for an end to abortion — by massing supporters on the Mall within sight of the U.S. Capitol and the White House. Sharpton, 65, perhaps shows his age by resorting to it almost by default. With the recent flourishing of another style of protest — autonomous, local demonstrations exploding in real time on the streets and social media with no central planning — will young Black Lives Matter demonstrators turn out for what they might consider their grandfathers’ march on Washington? And is a massive march on the Mall even possible in the time of covid?

Within a day of Sharpton’s announcement, Washington hotels began to sell out for that weekend. A half-dozen of the nation’s leading civil rights organizations quickly joined as co-sponsors. Sharpton said he was overwhelmed with people promising to march. “I’m sure all of them thought it was a well-laid-out plan already,” he told me. “But if you know the ’60s, that’s how they did. I mean, it has always been a leap of faith.”

TOP: A view from the Lincoln Memorial of the crowds at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (Bettmann Archive) ABOVE: Attendees at the march. (PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

A. Philip Randolph called for that earlier leap of faith in the spring of 1963. At first, the civil rights leader and founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters could get only a couple of civil rights organizations to sign on to a march — notably the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, headed by future congressman John Lewis. Marching on Washington was a novel and seemingly militant tactic, and it appealed to the young activists of SNCC.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then 34, was initially too engrossed in the desegregation campaign in Birmingham, Ala., to focus on Randolph’s idea. That changed after Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s public safety commissioner, deployed police dogs and fire hoses against peaceful protesters and children. A shocked nation riveted its attention on the civil rights struggle. King saw an opportunity for the movement to capitalize on the spotlight. “We are on the threshold of a significant breakthrough, and the greatest weapon is mass demonstration,” King said in a June 1, 1963, conversation wiretapped by the FBI, according to Drew D. Hansen’s “The Dream,” a history of King’s famous speech.

President John F. Kennedy invited the organizers to the White House and asked them to call off the march. Flooding the nation’s capital with demonstrators could harden opposition to a major civil rights bill the administration had just sent to Congress, Kennedy argued — the bill that would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “It may seem ill-timed,” King said to the president. “Frankly, I have never engaged in any direct-action movement which did not seem ill-timed.”

LEFT: Bayard Rustin, logistics maestro of the 1963 march, at a news briefing for the event. (Buyenlarge/Getty Images) RIGHT: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the march. (PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

The date was set. Now the organizers had to pull it off. Headquarters was a four-story building in Harlem under the command of the movement’s logistics maestro, Bayard Rustin. Young volunteers and low-paid staffers labored over details from arranging buses and trains to printing signs and recruiting volunteers.

In the end, an estimated 250,000 people marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. King’s words as the final speaker — “I have a dream today!” — are now inscribed on the nation’s soul. The march is credited with adding popular momentum for passage of landmark civil rights legislation over the next few years.

“For the very first time, America saw the movement in one time, in one place, and for the very first time the people in the movement spoke for themselves,” Charles Euchner, author of “Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington,” told me. “The impact of ’63 was re-centering and re-proclaiming kind of like a new Declaration of Independence.”

As a new tide of marchers sets out in King’s footsteps, Euchner continued, “The challenge now is, in many ways, very similar to the challenge that King and his group had, which is to re-center the conversation and say ... ‘This is about all of us. You might think that we’re just advocating for a guy who got killed when a cop kneed him in the neck, but actually it affects everybody.”

I asked Euchner what impact the 2020 march could have, capitalizing on today’s high quotients of outrage, activism, pandemic anxiety and pre-election mobilization. “This could be a New Deal moment,” he said. “It could be a Civil Rights Act of ’64 moment.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, left, at the National Action Network offices in Harlem in July, with, from left, Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, who was placed in a fatal chokehold by an officer in New York in 2014; Jamaal Bowman, the Democratic nominee for New York’s 16th Congressional District; and the Rev. Jacques Andre DeGraff.

At the very least, the gathering will make history as the first national march organized from self-isolation via Zoom. When Sharpton announced the march on June 4, cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, had yet to spike in the Sun Belt, and many states were flattening their virus curves. But by early July, the pandemic was resurging in parts of the country. Sharpton held weekly video chats with King and the march’s co-sponsors: Sharpton’s National Action Network, the NAACP, the National Urban League, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and several labor unions.

Organizers needed to work out the message and mechanics of a demonstration that could be staged in two universes: physical and digital. The complexities became apparent during a Zoom meeting of a dozen staffers in mid-July that I attended. The march needed to be promoted on social media, but how to mobilize people for an event whose exact nature was still unknown? “If and when there’s a decision to retreat from the live event and go all virtual ... what do we do?” asked a representative of the National Urban League.

“That’s an important question,” said Ebonie Riley, the head of the National Action Network’s Washington office and the march’s closest Bayard Rustin equivalent. Her suite of offices near the White House, where she oversees a staff of four, is a slimmed-down version of Rustin’s Harlem logistics hub. She’d had a call with the National Park Service that morning, she said: “We’re moving forward with in-person. Nothing has been decided to scale it back.”

For the first time since 1963, a civil rights march has the potential to come close to the original in leaving a lasting impact.

For the planners, the surreal circumstances underscored how historic the undertaking was. “It feels urgent because of what we’ve been seeing in the last couple months,” Riley told me. “We call it a double pandemic. You have the uptick of health disparities in our community mixed in with police misconduct and racism or discrimination.”

Through one socially distanced brainstorm after another, the march — now being called the Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks — began to take shape. The first line of marchers would be families of people killed by police, potentially including loved ones of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor (shot by police in her bed in Louisville, 2020), Eric Garner (placed in a fatal chokehold by an officer in New York, 2014), Michael Brown (shot by an officer in Ferguson, Mo., 2014), Botham Jean (shot in his Dallas apartment by an off-duty officer, 2018), Tamir Rice (shot by Cleveland police at age 12 while holding a toy gun, 2014), Josef Richardson (shot by a sheriff’s deputy in West Baton Rouge Parish, La., 2019), Terence Crutcher (shot by an officer in Tulsa, 2016) and others. Also invited would be families of those killed by vigilantes, such as Trayvon Martin (shot at age 17 by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., 2012) and Ahmaud Arbery (shot while jogging in Brunswick, Ga., 2020).

Organizers envisioned the families forming a tragic tableau on the Mall that would capture the emotion of the day for the viral posterity of Instagram. If a physical march became impossible, how to choreograph the image virtually was yet to be decided. Iconic images of demonstrators tightly packed around the Reflecting Pool, as in 1963, could not be counted on. Virtual workarounds would have a hard time making up for the old-school visceral shiver of seeing — and being in — a thunderous tide of humanity channeled in a singular endeavor.

Following a two-hour program at the Lincoln Memorial, at 1 p.m. the family members would lead the marchers to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial near the Tidal Basin. The lineup of speakers was in flux, though almost certainly it would include King’s son, Sharpton, leaders of major civil rights groups, surprise celebrities and musical performers.

Meanwhile, the NAACP oversaw the programming for a virtual march, for those reluctant to join a masked and socially distanced gathering. (A significant precedent took place on June 20, when the Rev. William J. Barber II held an online Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on Washington; his organization claimed more than 2.5 million people watched on Facebook.) The 2020 Virtual March on Washington will accompany the physical Get Your Knee Off Our Necks march and include eight hours of programming, offered to television networks and presented on social media platforms.

And so, what started as a recapitulation of the historic march that had provided the template for hundreds of crusades was turning into a reimagining of the very nature and possibilities of marching on Washington.

Sharpton kept track of things through conference calls with organizers. Late one afternoon in mid-July, he wanted to know: “How many spots are in Parking Lot U?” Organizing a march means mastering countless arcane details, such as the number of buses that can fit in a parking lot of RFK Stadium, five miles east of the Lincoln Memorial. “It’s 100 spots,” reported the Rev. De-Ves Toon, field coordinator of the action network. Toon also was securing hundreds more bus parking spaces at Union Station, near the Lincoln Memorial and elsewhere.

Sharpton continued quizzing Toon. How much would the live programming cost? The production management company was charging $84,000, said Toon. “That’s just for managing it. That’s not for one jumbotron, that’s not the actual layout of the staging area, that’s not the tents, none of that?” said Sharpton. Correct, Toon said.

How many people have registered to take part in the march? asked Sharpton. Exactly 40,002, Toon answered. Sharpton thought that was pretty good six weeks out. The permit application filed with the Park Service anticipated 100,000 marchers, but that was a placeholder estimate. He assumed tens of thousands of people would show up, covid or no covid, and the organizers had to make the demonstration as safe as possible. The action network would order 50 percent more buses than ordinarily needed so riders could space out in them. March marshals would require social distancing. Any marcher without a mask would be given one. A phrase was crafted for social media: “No mask, no march.”

“We just received this afternoon the invoice for 100,000 PPE masks,” Toon reported, using the abbreviation for personal protective equipment. “That’s $34,000.”

“Even if we got to do another 100,000 face masks, everybody that gets on a NAN bus,” Sharpton said, “they got to have a mask on.”

By the end of July, organizers realized even those precautions might not be enough. They came up with an alternative plan: If certain states remained virus hot spots, march buses would no longer travel from there. Instead, solidarity rallies would take place outside choice targets in those states, such as the offices of GOP Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), Marco Rubio (Florida) and John Cornyn (Texas), where giant screens would show the action in D.C. In addition, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has said marchers should abide by any quarantine regulations in effect for visitors on that day.

No matter what, there would be a demonstration on the Mall, Sharpton vowed. “I don’t care if we have [just] the families, Martin and me, and two people. ... Covid will dictate a lot of the crowd, but the message will be strong.”

Martin Luther King III, wife Arndrea Waters King and daughter Yolanda Renee King at their home in Atlanta. King was 5 years old when his father led the 1963 March on Washington. Now, he says, an opportunity has arisen unlike any since then: “This is the time to demand everything.”

By the time Martin Luther King Jr. finished his speech with the ringing invocation of the old spiritual — “Free at last, free at least, thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” — the crowd in 1963 was deliriously electrified by the determination and hope embodied in the address. Before the people dispersed, it fell to Bayard Rustin to recite the actual demands of the march. They were more prosaic than King’s inspiring vision, but just as essential to the day’s impact: passage of civil rights legislation, decent housing, fair employment, equal education, voting rights. Some of the demands were met in laws passed over the next five years, while some remain unfulfilled to this day.

No one can say if an oration on par with King’s will emerge this August, but the 2020 march organizers know they must not just touch the hearts being turned by the torturous death of George Floyd. They must transform emotion into a political program.

The central demands will be for the Senate to pass a voting rights bill named after John Lewis and a police reform law named after George Floyd. The voting rights measure, passed by the House in December, would restore elements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that Lewis had championed but that the Supreme Court weakened. The police bill would prohibit chokeholds, create a database to track police misconduct nationwide and make it easier to hold officers accountable in civil and criminal court, among other provisions. Both measures have been stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. March organizers blasted a narrower approach to police reform proposed by Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican senator, saying it’s too weak. “This is the one time that Senator Scott could stand up and ... challenge his colleagues as a Black man,” King told me. “This is the one time they would have to listen if he said ... ‘We need to make sure law enforcement treats everybody right.’ And that doesn’t seem to be something he’s willing to do.”

“We have the responsibility to bring some level of concrete change to this moment,” Sharpton says. “Otherwise people will remember it as a summer of discontent that we did not turn into legislation and affect the election.”

Yet the march is not likely to promote the more controversial rallying cry of many demonstrators: “Defund the police.” Organizers support some form of reallocating funds from law enforcement to community investment and social programs that would reduce the need for police encounters. But they are wary of letting the meaning of the march be reduced to a mantra that critics deliberately misinterpret as “abolishing” the police.

Their caution echoes 1963. Architects of the original march steered away from extremes, too. The youngest speaker that day was John Lewis, then 23. On behalf of the more militant student activists, he had been prepared to denounce Kennedy’s civil rights bill as “too little and too late.” At the last minute, backstage at the Lincoln Memorial, he was pressured by the elder organizers to accept some politic edits of his speech: “It is true that we support the administration’s civil rights bill,” he said on the podium. “We support it with great reservation, however.”

If the concept of defunding the police is raised at all during the march — the exact policy language was still being worked on in the final weeks — it will be shrouded with similar nuance. “While ‘defund the police’ is an appealing term, it should not replace the fact that many of us, myself included, have been messaging around what we call holistic approaches to public safety for years,” Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, told me. “It just wasn’t called ‘defund the police.’ ... There’s broad consensus that the public safety function needs to be reimagined, and that there needs to be greater investments in affordable housing, community development, youth, investments in jobs, in schools, in after-school programs. In other words, take the slogan, put meat on it.”

The demands will begin with police misconduct. But since the pandemic has helped call into question more fundamental assumptions, organizers will pivot to broader themes of systemic racism and democracy in crisis. “We are literally witnessing the birth of our nation’s 21st-century civil rights movement,” says Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “This moment presents an opportunity to confront some of the ugliest aspects of our nation’s history.”

Martin Luther King III was 5 years old in 1963; he did not attend the march with his father. Now, he says, an opportunity has arisen unlike any since then. “This is the time to demand everything, to make our society a better society once and for all,” he told me. “Dad wanted to eradicate what he called the triple evils of poverty, racism and he used ‘militarism.’ I sort of change ‘militarism’ to ‘violence.’ ... We have an opportunity in a monumental way to begin reducing all of these areas.”

Turning activism into action on those fronts will require people to be counted, both in the census and at the ballot box. Organizers accuse Trump and his allies of attempting to discourage participation in the census and suppress the vote. So the march will feature stations to inform people about completing the census and registering to vote. Poll watchers will be recruited, and information on “election protection” measures will be circulated. “We have the responsibility to bring some level of concrete change to this moment,” Sharpton told me. “Otherwise people will remember it as a summer of discontent that we did not turn into legislation and affect the election.”

I met Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, in Harlem at a National Action Network rally. It was July 18, the day after the sixth anniversary of her son’s death from an officer’s chokehold on Staten Island. Garner’s case eerily prefigured the death of George Floyd and shows what has and has not changed in six years. Both killings were caught on video, with both men gasping “I can’t breathe” in their final moments. Garner’s death stirred passionate protests, but they were confined to several cities and no officer was charged. Floyd’s death sparked a 50-state uprising and a march on Washington, and four officers are facing trial. Carr will be in the front line of the march, she said: “It will be a stronger movement because we have everybody involved now. ... We are going to be like a force coming to Washington.”

Staff of the National Action Network’s D.C. bureau planning for the march. From left: Tylik McMillan, policy adviser and national director of youth and college; Kyra Stephenson-Valley, policy adviser and health and wellness director; Ebonie Riley, D.C. bureau chief; Marquez Ball, religious affairs liaison; and Erika Owens, office manager.

What if coming to Washington is no longer necessary, though? While the first march innovated a form of protest, assembling on the Mall isn’t the only way to raise a national clamor in 2020. That’s especially obvious in the current moment, when Black Lives Matter protesters in hundreds of cities have revolutionized national racial politics from their own backyards — and activists like Jessica Byrd are pursuing alternative forms of organizing.

Byrd helps lead the Electoral Justice Project, an arm of the Movement for Black Lives, which is a national coalition of young activists and organizations formed in 2014 after protests in Ferguson, Mo., against police in the killing of Michael Brown. Before Sharpton announced the Aug. 28 march, Byrd and the EJP were planning a gathering for the same date: a Black National Convention to be held in Detroit. The pandemic forced a switch to a virtual convention, to be streamed on the group’s site, The organizers anticipate up to 4 million Black voters participating via watch parties across the country. The convention will ratify an agenda on police reform, economic justice and other issues that it will demand the next president take up in the administration’s first 100 days. Participants will be given activist “tool kits” to help them work on issues in their communities.

The Movement for Black Lives stakes out more radical positions than the legacy civil rights groups organizing the march, questioning capitalism and challenging the purpose of police and prisons. It supports what it calls the Breathe Act, which, among other defunding measures, would disband federal drug and immigration enforcement agencies and gradually close federal prisons. The premise of the convention is that what is required to turn protest into power at this point is not another march, but a strategic marshaling of political and electoral pressure.

“The truth is that we have two specifically distinctive audiences,” Byrd says of the organizations behind the march and the new wave planning the convention. “Our favorite aunt’s org and our favorite org may be different. But we absolutely believe that Black people engaged in their own political destiny in a political home is the right thing for everyone.”

National marches are attempts to seize moments of reckoning and make them live up to their promise of real and permanent change.

For their part, march organizers are relieved that the convention is set to kick off in the hours after the march concludes. Marchers can watch the convention during the bus ride home. And Sharpton, sensitive to any appearance of a generational divide, has entrusted to younger people much of the planning of what he calls an “intergenerational” demonstration. The Washington logistics hub is managed by activists in their 20s and 30s.

“I feel like, you know, they’ll have homecoming, and in the evening, we’ll have prom,” Byrd says. “And I think that the whole weekend will be really kind of a blessed and exciting time of engagement.”

Cliff Albright, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, which has voter empowerment projects in at least 15 states and is co-sponsoring the convention, is not so sure. “There’s a recognition of, a respect for some of the tactics that we’ve used in the past like doing a march on Washington,” Albright told me. “But also a recognition that that’s not the only way for us to have a national movement, or the only way to culminate a national movement.”

Albright worries that a national march could drain resources from local struggles at a time when community activism is flourishing. He pointed out that notable policy wins since George Floyd’s death have come from that work, with city councils banning chokeholds, declaring racism a public health emergency and reallocating some police funds. That’s “more victories on Black Lives Matter-type policy than we had seen in the previous six years since Black Lives Matter started,” he says. Important decisions about policing and voting are made at the state and local levels, he adds. “It’s just a matter of what’s the best way to raise these issues,” Albright says. “Can we reimagine what a national movement looks like, absent a march on Washington?”

Albright puts his finger on a distinctive characteristic of the new movement that I first noticed in the anti-corporate-globalization protests at the turn of the millennium. These nonviolent insurgencies draw strength from their diffuse leaderlessness and spontaneity.

And yet, there’s something irreplaceable about a national march. Even the anarchist anti-globalists reliably returned to Washington year after year to make their case in the streets around the World Bank. And the amazing regional activism of the new civil rights movement has its precedent in the all-but-forgotten burst of local demonstrations in the run-up to the 1963 march.

In the six weeks following the death of George Floyd, there were about 5,700 anti-racism, anti-police-brutality protests across the country, according to the Crowd Counting Consortium, which has been tracking the demonstrations. In comparison, at a time when marching for racial justice was less customary and more dangerous, in the 10 weeks after the Birmingham campaign of April-May 1963, there were 758 demonstrations for civil rights in 186 cities, according to Hansen in “The Dream.”

The purpose of the 1963 march was to draw those isolated tributaries into one mighty river. A national march has a way of revealing the universal plea within the local grievance. This march, timed as it is to the politics of the moment, almost requires a presence in Washington. “This is also about a contrast with Trump and taking on Trump,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a co-sponsor of the march. “Just like in ’63, it was basically sending Kennedy a message that justice can’t wait. Now it’s sending Trump a message that you have betrayed the people.”

“The national march is not the only thing you do, but it’s a major thing you do because you’ve got to address the national government,” Sharpton told me. “Donald Trump is the adversarial mayor or chief that you can build a movement around. ... He’s our Bull Connor.”

Sharpton greets a visitor at one of his weekly rallies at the National Action Network in Harlem in July.

Aug. 28 is the anniversary of another important milestone in the struggle for civil rights. Sixty-five years ago on that date, 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi. The open casket at his funeral showing his brutalized body shocked the public who saw the photos, drawing attention to violent racism. At the time, it was seen as an inflection point, when society could take a significant turn — a moment like today.

But as the years passed and the injustices piled up, it became clear that not enough would change following Till’s death, just as one police killing that was supposed to end all police killings was followed by another. Bodies kept filling caskets in the presence of Sharpton’s eulogies; families kept searching for ways to redeem their grief. “We’ve been at these moments before, of potential inflection points and potential radical change on some of these issues,” Albright, of the Black Voters Matter Fund, says wistfully. “Our history shows us that these moments can sometimes be fleeting.” National marches are attempts to seize moments of reckoning and make them live up to their promise of real and permanent change. They are led by charismatic crusaders hoping to catapult a movement.

Nearly every Saturday morning, as he has for the past 29 years, Sharpton goes to the National Action Network’s storefront House of Justice in Harlem, set between a corner grocery and a fried chicken place. Through his long evolution from street activist and provocateur to civil rights eminence, network television host and regular visitor to Barack Obama’s White House, Sharpton’s Saturday morning rallies in Harlem, along with his 15 hours a week talking on Black radio, are how he keeps in touch with his local activist roots.

On a Saturday in the second week of July, Sharpton spent a couple of hours sermonizing and talking up the march to about 80 people, plus a radio and cable TV audience. Then he handed out bags of food to folks lined up outside. Afterward, Sharpton was in a pensive mood. It was the day following the deaths of John Lewis and the Rev. C.T. Vivian, another civil rights hero. Lewis had been the last surviving speaker from the 1963 march.

“Now the generation that raised me is mostly gone,” Sharpton said. “And we’ve got young people coming behind us with a lot of energy. We’ve got to show we can handle what we was raised for, that they didn’t waste their time.”

He brimmed with confidence that the 2020 march would do his elders proud and make history. Yet, of course, he couldn’t know. The proof would come after, perhaps long after, when history will show whether this inflection point turns out to be decisive, or one more step in a seemingly never-ending journey.

David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine.

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Michael Johnson.

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