WASHINGTON — It wasn’t necessarily on the route, but the 50-year-anniversary of the March on Washington came through Atlanta.
From the dozen or so busloads of metro Atlanta residents who traveled up I-85 to Washington, to the luminaries who spoke from the stage — two children of Martin Luther King Jr., an Atlanta congressman and two recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the city’s influence was hard to miss Saturday.
“We never dreamed you would be here 50 years later and with an African American president,” said one of them, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, one of the last speakers of the long day. “Everything has changed and nothing has changed. We come to Washington wanting to commemorate. We are going back home to agitate.”
Lowery repeated the refrain several times. Each time getting louder.
Charis Dorsey, a law student at Howard University and a graduate of Benjamin E. Mays High School in Atlanta and Spelman College, got the message.
“As young social engineers it was important to come hear about the issues, such as labor,” she said. “I’m very surprised to see so many young people here. Civil rights first affected our moms and pops, now it’s affecting us. The torch has been passed.”
Tens of thousands of people from across the country packed the National Mall to mark the event that is largely remembered today for Martin Luther King Jr.’s incandescent “I Have a Dream” speech.
Weather-wise, it was an almost perfect day, with crystal-blue skies and a slight breeze. Like in 1963, the crowd hugged the length of the Reflecting Pool, some settling as far back as the World War II Memorial.
“Daddy is smiling up above, knowing that by your presence you will keep his dream alive,” said Martin Luther King III, speaking from the very spot where his father spoke 50 years ago.
Along with King III’s sister, Bernice King, the Atlanta speakers included Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader C.T. Vivian (who, like Lowery, is a Medal of Freedom recipient) and activist Markel Hutchins. Others who spoke included the Rev. Al Sharpton, who delivered the keynote address, Attorney General Eric Holder, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Myrlie Evers Williams, the widow of assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
The Atlanta-based SCLC, the organization King founded to serve as his organizational base, is also holding its national convention in Washington to conincide with the anniversary. President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak on the Mall Wednesday, the actual day of the anniversary.
In addition to King, another near-ubiquitous figure on Saturday was slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin. There seemed to be just as many Trayvon T-shirts as King shirts. And then there were the shirts and posters that bore images of both of them.
The parents of Martin and the relatives of Emmett Till, whose horrific 1955 lynching is often invoked by those decrying Martin’s death, appeared on stage together.
Evers implored marchers to take the phrase ‘stand your ground’ — associated with laws condoning the use of force in situations such as the one that led to Martin’s death — and turn it on its head, as a vow to continue fighting for justice.
The 1963 march played a huge symbolic role in getting two key pieces of legislation passed: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
That, many speakers said, made this anniversary even timelier. Even as participants celebrated King’s legacy – marching after the program to his new monument near the Mall – many also said they came to protest what they consider serious attacks on voting rights. Many bemoaned the recent Supreme Court decision striking down key portions of the Voting Rights Act, which required Georgia and other southern states to submit changes in voting procedures for federal approval.
“Many of the rights (marchers) fought for in the 1960s are being threatened now,” said Thomas Jones, 59.
Georgia congressman John Lewis, who gave the day’s most rousing speech, reminded the crowd that during those turbulent days, he got arrested 40 times fighting for civil rights. He even, he said “gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Alabama, for the right to vote,” — a reference to the brutal police attack on marchers that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”
“I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us,” said Lewis, who was the youngest speaker at the original March on Washington. “You cannot stand by. You cannot sit down. You got to stand up. Speak up. Speak out, and get in the way. The vote is precious. It is almost sacred and the most powerful non-violent too we have democratic society and we have to use it.”
Lewis is working with others in on Congress to restore the full force of the Voting Rights Act.
“I say 50 years later, we cannot wait. We cannot be patient. We want jobs and we want our freedom now,” Lewis said. “We cannot give up. We cannot give in. We must push and pull. I am not tired. I am not weary. I am ready to fight.”
His address received a standing ovation.
Sharpton echoed the same theme, saying the right to vote “was soaked in the blood of martyrs.”
“We want the Congress to re-write a Voting Rights Act, and we want to protect our right to vote,” he said.
Wiping sweat from his brow, Sharpton attacked so-called “voter ID laws” adopted by many states, including Georgia. He said that at least since the election of Lyndon Baines Johnson, blacks have never had to go to such lengths to prove who they were before voting.
“Why, when we get to Obama, do we need some special ID?” Sharpton said. “When we leave Washington, we gonna go to those states. We on our way to North Carolina. Texas. Florida. When they ask us for our voter ID, take out a photo of Medgar Evers. Take out a photo of (Andrew) Goodman, (Michael) Schwerner and (James) Chaney (three civil rights workers who were murdered in 1964 in Mississippi). They gave their lives so we can vote.”
All of that struck a chord with 29-year-old Steven Miller, of DeKalb, who is awaiting the results of his bar exam. He came to the march with his father.
“My father was big in the movement. He was very active. He marched with King,” Miller said. “So I wanted to be part of something that I know would be historic.”
Staff writer Angela Tuck contributed to this article.