March on Washington 2013: ‘Work Unfinished’

By Gary Feuerberg
Gary Feuerberg
Gary Feuerberg
August 26, 2013 Updated: August 26, 2013

WASHINGTON—Tens of thousands of civil rights activists converged on the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday. Aug. 24 to honor and remember the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. 

The organizers, the National Action Network (NAN) together with several civil rights and labor organizations, made the occasion more than a commemoration. The tone was serious as the speakers repeatedly reminded participants that the work and sacrifices that Dr. King and other civil rights leaders made must continue in the 21st century. 

Joseph Lowery, co-founder with Dr. King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and who attended the 1963 March, remarked, “Everything has changed and nothing has changed.” Many speakers echoed the sentiment that civil rights are unfinished business.

The participants heard brief speeches from the nation’s leading civil rights, labor and church leaders, including Rep. John Lewis, Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King lll, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), Attorney General Eric Holder, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), James Lowery, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King’s daughter Bernice King, the family of Emmett Till and the mother of slain teenager Trayvon Martin. 

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Old battles in fighting against discrimination and segregation of African-Americans in the 1960s have taken on new forms in the 21st century. Today the civil rights battles include: fighting for a living wage and women’s equality, opposing voter ID laws, ending racial profiling, overturning ‘Stand Your Ground’ legislation, and enacting comprehensive immigration reform.

At about 1:30 p.m., the crowd began the march to the memorial for Martin Luther King, Jr. The march ended at the Washington Monument.

Recommitment to King’s Dream

The link in time between the sacrifices of the past to achievements in our own time was noted by national executive director of NAN, Tamika Mallory, who said that Dr. King’s speech fifty years ago was “one of the most transforming moments in American history.” Likewise, the swearing in of Barack Obama as the 44th president was “a great moment.” She noted:

“The sweat, tears, and blood of Frederick Douglas, A. Philip Randolph, Dorothy Height, Shirley Chisholm, John Lewis, the Freedom Riders and many others made it possible for us to vote for Barack Obama.”

Attorney General Eric Holder, the first African-American to hold the office of attorney general, said the ‘63 marchers “believed in the greatness what the nation could become and despaired of the founding promises not kept.” He acknowledged the nameless individuals who rode the buses, sat at lunch counters, and stood up to racist governments and governors, and those who gave their lives. He mentioned the silent generations who “carried themselves with dignity in the face of unspeakable injustice.”

Holder said, “But for them, I would not be attorney general of the United States and Barack Obama would not be president of the United States of America.”

Holder spoke of the endurance and sacrifice of many African-Americans from America’s past and the profound love of country that motivated them. “We must remember those who served and fought and died wearing the uniform of a nation that they cared so much about, but who did not reciprocate that devotion in equal measure.” 

He spoke as King did of making the country live up to its promise: “We look to work that remains unfinished and make note of our nation’s shortcomings, not because we wish to dwell on imperfections … We love this great country. We want this nation to be all that it was designed to be and all that it can become.”

Women’s Presence in 2013 March 

Fifty years ago, march organizers met with John F. Kennedy, the country’s first Catholic president. Fifty years later, the first African American president is scheduled to speak Aug. 28 at the Lincoln Memorial on the actual anniversary of the March on Washington.

Another obvious change was the number of women slated to address the marchers. Myrlie Evers-Williams was the only woman asked to speak at the 1963 gathering, but was unable to attend. At the 50th Anniversary rally, many women were heard, including Evers-Williams. 

“Ain’t I a woman?” asked Evers-Williams, invoking the spirit of Sojourner Truth, an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Evers-Williams, 80, encouraged the gathered crowds to remember the contributions of women in the civil rights movement, including Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz, the wife of slain civil rights leader Malcolm X. 

Congresswoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), Congressional Black Caucus Chairman, said there were only six African-Americans in Congress in 1963 and there are 43 today. Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was present at the 1963 march, added that the Congressional Black Caucus is the “conscience of the Congress.”

John Lewis Whips Up Crowd

One of the most passionate speeches at the Lincoln Memorial was given by Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), who also spoke at the 1963 March as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Lewis, 73, said in 1963, millions could not register to vote, and that he would not accept advice given then to wait and be patient.

“[Nearly 50 years ago] I gave a little blood at that bridge in Selma, Alabama for the right to vote. I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us.” 

The crowd cheered wildly when Lewis said, “You cannot stand by … You have to speak up, speak out, and get in the way. Make some noise!”

Lewis said the vote is “almost sacred” and is “the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society.” We have to fix the Voting Rights Act, he said. 

He also urged the passing of comprehensive immigration reform. “It doesn’t make sense to have millions of our people living in the shadows.”

“I got arrested 40 times in the 60s, beaten up bloody and unconscious. But in that time, I was not weary. I’m not prepared to sit down and give up. I am ready to fight and continue to fight.” 

Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, spoke briefly, as did a family member of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was shot in the head and thrown into the Tallahatchie River for whistling at a white woman in 1955 Mississippi. August 28 marks both the date of Till’s death in 1955 and the date of the 1963 March on Washington.

Bernice King, youngest daughter of civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, and CEO of the King Center in Atlanta, gave the closing prayer. King honored both her parents, first quoting her mother who said:

“Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won; you earn it and win it in every generation.” King prayed that those gathered would ‘take up the baton’ and be vigilant “Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

With reporting by Donna Ware

Gary Feuerberg
Gary Feuerberg