Tens of thousands of marchers converged on Washington on Saturday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech, and to urge action on jobs, voting rights and gun violence.
“We believe in a new America. It’s time to march for a new America,” civil rights leader and MSNBC television commentator Reverend Al Sharpton told the predominantly black crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Sharpton and other speakers paid tribute to King and other civil rights leaders for progress over the past five decades that led to gains including US President Barack Obama’s election as the first black US president.
However, the shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida last year and the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down a portion of the voting rights law showed the struggle was not over, they said.
“King saw the possibility of an Obama 50 years ago. The world is made of dreamers that change reality because of their dream. And what we must do is we must give our young people dreams again,” Sharpton said.
The “National Action to Realize the Dream” was led by Sharpton and Martin Luther King III, King’s oldest son.
“We ain’t going to let nobody turn us around. We’re going to keep marching down to freedom land,” King told the crowd. “I know that Daddy is smiling up above, knowing that your presence here today will assure the fulfillment of his dream.”
Organizers expected 100,000 people to attend the rally and march from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, passing by the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial. The National Park Service does not make crowd estimates and organizers did not immediately respond to requests for their own.
Under a bright blue sky, a huge throng of people crowded both sides of the 610m reflecting pool east of the Lincoln Memorial.
Other speakers included US Attorney General Eric Holder, House of Representatives minority leader Nancy Pelosi, the family of Trayvon Martin and Democratic Representative John Lewis, the last surviving organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963, at which King delivered his famous speech.
More than 40 groups participated in Saturday’s march, among them the Service Employees International Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Federation of Teachers.
The march aimed to call attention to such issues as job opportunities, voting rights, gun violence, women’s rights and immigration reform.
Despite big gains politically and in education, nearly half of those who responded to a poll by the Pew Research Center in Washington think far more needs to be done to achieve the color-blind society King envisioned.
King was among six organizers of the 1963 march and led about 250,000 people to the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall and delivered his “I have a dream” speech from its steps.
The speech and march helped spur passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in 1964 and 1965 respectively.
King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968, at age 39.
Obama is scheduled to speak on Wednesday at a ceremony marking the actual anniversary of the march at the Lincoln Memorial. The commemoration is to include a nationwide ringing of bells at 3pm.