A dreary and oppressively humid late summer Washington morning would not deter thousands from filling the grounds of the National Mall on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 “March On Washington” Wednesday morning.
Dubbed “Let Freedom Ring,” the event contrasted last Saturday’s “Realize The Dream” march only in the weather conditions, as the tone and content of President Barack Obama‘s closing remarks remained largely the same and focused on a common theme of togetherness.
Attendees flocked in early, with some camping out at the Mall around 7 a.m. Families large and small staked out nooks and tree covered areas for themselves, hoping to block the rain that would later come. Much like last weekend, many traveled far to the commemorative event, and NewsOne spoke with a few attendees who also came 50 yeas ago.
“I was 17 when I was first here,” said Betty Waller Gray of Richmond, Va. “My mother was active in theNAACP and taught me the basics of freedom, justice, and equality. We’re still fighting for that today. We need to allow our older and younger people to join hands and bring about the peace Dr. King wanted.”
Ms. Gray’s statement echoed what many of the distinguished speakers and participants shared during their time at the podium. We were fortunate to have brief chats with some of the notable stars at the event. Retired Detroit Piston great Isiah Thomas told us he was “thrilled and honored” to be amongst the attendees. Veteran actor Forest Whitaker shared a similar thought in passing, saying that he was grateful to be chosen as a speaker.
Media mogul Oprah Winfrey was the first to speak in a series of “prime-time” feature speakers during the event’s home stretch.
From Oprah Winfrey’s speech:
And as we, the people, continue to honor the dream of a man and a movement, a man who in his short life saw suffering and injustice and refused to look the other way, we can be inspired and we, too, can be courageous by continuing to walk in the footsteps in the path that he forged. He is the one who reminded us that we will never walk alone. He was, after all, a drum major for justice.
Congressman John Lewis picked up from where he left off over the weekend, urging listeners to fight for their civil and voting rights and to take charge in the civic process. Former Presidents Jimmy Carterand Bill Clinton both delivered strong words that spoke to the purpose of King’s message and the hopes that all races will one day have equal footing. Martin Luther King III delivered a brief, but fiery speech before yielding to the eldest and only living sibling of Dr. King, Christine King Farris.
Ms. King Farris told the crowd that while she wasn’t sure if she was the oldest of the speakers, she did claim the distinction of knowing Dr. King the best. “I knew him when he was a baby,” said King Farris. Dr. King’s youngest child, Rev. Dr. Bernice King, seemed to channel her father’s energy at times and hammered home the point that the racism of her father’s time still exists today.
President Obama’s remarks were highly anticipated by all, considering his historic rise to the nation’s highest office and his reverence of Dr. King’s work. Speaking on the need for the entire nation to heal longstanding division and break down the walls of communication, his measured but effective tone, coupled with recalling King’s message, left a mark on some judging by the response.
From Obama’s speech:
Yes, there have been examples of success within black America that would have been unimaginable a half century ago. But as has already been noted, black unemployment has remained almost twice as high as white unemployment, Latino unemployment close behind. The gap in wealth between races has not lessened, it’s grown.
And then, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way.
The president spoke at length of strengthening the middle class so that families can provide the opportunities for themselves and their children not afforded a half century ago. But it was towards the end of his speech where President Obama made clear what he hopes the march of today would achieve.
“That’s the promise of tomorrow” he said with intensity, “that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.”