Thousands Brave Sweltering Temps For March on Washington’s 60th Anniversary

August 27, 2023 by Dan McCue
Thousands Brave Sweltering Temps For March on Washington’s 60th Anniversary

WASHINGTON — Six decades on, the decennial remembrance of the 1963 March on Washington may not draw hundreds of thousands of participants, but for the several thousand who did make their way to the National Mall on Saturday, the day was a moving reminder of the sacrifices of the past and battles against inequality left to come.

Billed as a “continuation not a celebration” by the event’s organizers, civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and president of the National Action Network, and Martin Luther King III, eldest son of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, the “march” was essentially a day-long rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

From early morning until a short march to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Tidal Basin in mid-afternoon, speakers ranging from preachers and activists to House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and Sacha Baron Cohen, the actor who portrays the satirical character, Borat, took to the podium to denounce political extremism and warn that the dream King so eloquently spoke of 60 years ago is being threatened like never before.

As they spoke, Black, White, Asian-American and Latino, the straight and the gay all crowded together under the lush trees adjacent to the reflecting pond, seeking relief from the sweltering August heat.

For some, attending the march was a chance to be a part of history, for others, it was a continuation of a legacy.

“My father attended the first march on his lunch break,” said Rachel Woodson, a D.C. resident, as she walked down 15th Street toward the National Mall Saturday morning. 

“Most people forget that the original march was on a Wednesday, and so a lot of local residents could only attend during their lunch or, if they worked close enough, on a break from work,” she said.

Woodson said the history of the quest for civil rights runs deep in her family. Not only did her father attend the March on Washington — technically, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — but her mother participated in the last leg of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, two years later.

“That background made me a real history buff, and in fact, today I’m a history teacher,” she said. “And I’ve been attending commemorations of the original March on Washington since childhood.”

Asked what she thought of this year’s theme, the idea that the march represented a continuation of the struggle for civil rights, Woodson reflected for a moment.

“I mean, it’s not like it was in the old days. My experience today, as a mixed race American, isn’t what my parents’ experience was,” she said. “But you know, it does feel like we’re always taking two steps forward and one step back.

“So we have to do everything we can to keep moving in a positive direction,” she said.

A few yards from the Mall, Woodson ran into Karen and Darwin Walker, total strangers, who were leaving the rally, but offered her their sign, emblazoned with the words, “Do Justice, Love Mercy … March Proudly” to carry with her.

“We came out today because we really support everything that the march is about,” Darwin Walker said. 

“I like that idea that it’s a continuation of the effort 1963 represented, but at the same time, on some level, it’s kind of a disappointment that we are still struggling with these issues.”

Of course Woodson was far from the only “legacy” march attendee on the mall Saturday, another was Jim David, whose mother Ursula attended the first march.

As he moved through the crowd, from the reflecting pool toward the steps of the memorial, he held up an obviously very old, slightly tattered sign.

“We march for first class citizenship now,” it said.

“It’s from the original march,” David explained. “My mom carried it then, and I brought it out today to continue the history and to let people hold it and have their pictures taken with it,” he explained.

Kamila Griffin, a student at Spelman College in Atlanta said she and several of her fellow students traveled to D.C. because they are active in several of the causes being represented at the march.

“For instance, I’m a member of the National Action Network at Spelman, while my friend here,” she said with a gesture to her left, is part of the Spelman NAACP chapter,” she said.

“I think it’s important to be here, not just to represent our organizations, but to learn and be inspired,” she said.

A few steps away, Meeko Williams, an activist with Hydrate Detroit, and Renla Sessions, a member of the National Action Network’s Detroit chapter were “showing love and support” for the cause.

“Because,” Williams said, “the struggle to stand up for justice and civil rights still continues.”

“For instance, at Hydrate Detroit, we’re fighting water shut-offs that are occurring all over the city,” he said. “And while you see infrastructure projects happening all over, this is the time to have a call to action and make sure that this work is truly addressing our outstanding needs, like having clean water for everyone.”

For others, their attendance was part of a far more personal quest.

In the case of Terry Davis, it was to advocate for justice for her nephew, Jelani Day, a graduate of Alabama A&M University, who was pursuing a masters degree in speech pathology when he went missing in August 2021 and was later found dead.

“So we’re really seeking justice for Jelani,” Davis said. “My sister needs help from the local authorities to find out exactly what happened to him.”

As Davis spoke, Ruby Silverado, who described herself as the “auntie” of the family, handed out flyers, describing the family’s effort.

“What happened to Jelani? That’s what we’re trying to find out,” said his grandmother, Gloria.

Across the reflecting pool, “One Love” from Atlanta, was proudly sporting a t-shirt honoring Fani Willis, the Fulton County, Georgia, district attorney who is pursuing the election interference case against former President Donald Trump and several alleged conspirators in Georgia state court.

Under a picture of Willis on the t-shirt were the words “Our Hero.”

“Sixty years ago, when the first march occurred, I was just four-and-a-half years old, so I wanted to take the opportunity to be here — not just to assess how things are changing in our country, but to be able to see the diversity here in the crowd,” Love said.

“I mean, look at all these different faces,” she said, gesturing to the people arrayed before her.

“What this shows is that we all want the same thing. This is what we should be buying into instead of all of this divisiveness that we hear about all the time,” she continued. “I mean, if you look around you, you can see that divisiveness is a lie.”

Love said while it’s sometimes hard to overcome the rhetoric of the political arena, “I just know and believe in my heart that love and justice are going to prevail and that we are going to get to the lemonade and sunny side of things. We just have to continue – knowing that things might not always occur on our timeline – to be voices of change.

“And we ought to stop focusing on the word ‘fight.’ We’ve been ‘fighting’ for 60 years and very little has changed,” she continued. “I believe in the power of words. So let’s focus more on change and progress and less on fighting and disagreeing. Light always overcomes the darkness.”

Also struck by the diversity of the crowd was Danny Campbell, a proud member of the United Auto Workers Union who had traveled by bus from Detroit, Michigan.

“I wish there were more people here,” Campbell said. “I was here for the 50th anniversary march and you couldn’t walk through here, it was so crowded.

“But, you know, the message is still clear, and in some ways, it’s even more resounding because of the issues that are on display here today. We’ve got the Black community here, the LGBTQ community, people talking about educational issues … and the message is ‘Y’all got to get this stuff straight, because we comin’.”

“We’re not taking no for an answer. We’re not simply going to be pacified. We want it — justice, equality — and we want it the right way,” he said.

Standing in the shade about a hundred yards or so from the speakers’ podium, Mike from New York waved a red and green American flag.

“It represents the fact that we still live in two Americas,” he said. “While the flag may look different from yours, it’s a declaration that we are not Black Americans, we are American Americans and we have the right to justice just like everybody else.”

Looking around him, Mike continued, “There’s a good vibration here today, a good energy being shared by a diverse group of people.

“It’s a good spirit,” he added. “Definitely a good spirit.”

(Photo gallery all photos by Dan McCue.)

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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