The contradictions in the plight and the position of African-Americans were highlighted yesterday by a procession of speakers using soaring oratory and nostalgic references to Martin Luther King Jr. The speakers reminded tens of thousands of people, gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, that while there is much to celebrate in a nation led by an African-American president, there is still significant work to be done.
From Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the event’s organizers, to Attorney General Eric Holder, from Newark Mayor Cory Booker to Rep. John Lewis, who was the youngest speaker at the original march, they reminded the crowd of the past while pushing listeners to look toward the future. And in the voice of Sybrina Fulton, the mother of slain teen Trayvon Martin, the crowd had a poignant reminder of the dangers still faced by too many African-American youth.
Sharpton warned the crowd to not be fooled into thinking that the material and professional successes they may enjoy are theirs alone.
“You got there because some unlettered grandmas who never saw the inside of a college campus put their bodies on the line in Alabama and Mississippi and sponsored you up here,” he said.
The recent Supreme Court decision striking down a key section of the Voting Rights Act served as a meaningful backdrop to the march—as the Voting Rights Act was considered a major achievement of the 1963 march. Many of the speakers bashed the court’s hubris and logic in dismantling the law at a time when Republicans, in so many states, are passing laws to roll back voting rights.
“I gave blood on the bridge in Selma, Alabama, for the right to vote,” Rep. Lewis said, his rumbling voice echoing over the mall. “I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us.”
Attorney General Holder, who was welcomed with a resounding roar from the crowd, said that King’s struggle must continue “until every eligible American has the chance to exercise his or her right to vote unencumbered by discrimination or unneeded procedurals, rules or practices.”
Holder acknowledged how the efforts of civil rights activists were the reason he could stand before the crowd as the nation’s first African-American attorney general, working for the first African-American president.
“Those who marched on Washington in 1963 had taken a long and difficult road,” he said. “As we gather today, 50 years later, their march is now our march, and it must go on.”
Sharpton, who was was the keynote speaker, sent the crowd into a frenzy with his evocation of past heros and martyrs.
When blacks voted for presidents such as John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, George W. Bush and others, he said, the IDs they showed at polls sufficed.
“Why when we get to Obama do we need some special ID?” Sharpton asked. “When we leave here, we’re going to go to those states that have passed strict photo ID laws and other restrictions like Texas and North Carolina. And when they ask us for our voter ID, take out a photo of Medgar Evers and others who gave their lives so we could vote. Say, ‘Look at this photo. It gives you the ID of who we are.’ ”
While the original march didn’t have any female speakers and the organizers wouldn’t allow Bayard Rustin to address the crowd because he was openly gay, things were different yesterday.
“When women succeed, America succeeds,” said Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, who attended the 1963 march. She called for Congress to “make the minimum wage a living wage.”
The New York Times noted that President Obama was conspicuous by his absence, with the paper pointing out that he is reluctant to speak on racial issues and even speculating that he might be reluctant to share a stage with the controversial Sharpton—who is actually a close friend of his. But Obama is scheduled to speak in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday, joined by Presidents Carter and Clinton, in a ceremony to mark the anniversary on August 28, the actual day that King spoke 50 years ago.
“This moment in the continuum in our history is an important one,” Obama senior adviser and confidante Valerie Jarrett told TIME. “It gives the president a chance to reflect on those 50 years. What that speech meant to him, how far our nation has come, and where he sees our nation going.”
“Each generation has an obligation to pick up the baton,” Jarrett said. “We want young people to feel a sense of responsibility to take that baton and run with it. The president enjoys the opportunity to motivate young people. His speech to his campaign team the day after the last election, he was moved to tears. He said: ‘You all are so much better than we were. The future really rests with you.’”
Obama, Jarrett said, “stands on the shoulders of those who came before him. The next generation will stand on his shoulders. So they can stand taller.”
Booker, a Democrat and rising African-American political star who is considered a shoo-in to win a Senate seat in New Jersey in October, urged the younger generation to remember that their freedoms were “bought by the struggles and the sacrifices and the work of those who came before.”
Booker, 44, who was not yet born during the original march, cautioned the audience against becoming “dumb, fat and happy, thinking that we have achieved freedom.”
“There is still work to do,” Booker said, naming gun violence, discrimination in the justice system, and the continuing effects of poverty as issues that still need to be corrected.