WASHINGTON – Tens of thousands of people, including several hundred from Buffalo, relived history here Saturday, reclaiming the dream that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spelled out nearly 50 years ago on the very same spot in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Gathering beneath crystalline skies, the marchers, like the men and women who spoke at the podium, recalled the astonishing advances in civil rights that King’s movement inspired – while warning that those advances could stop if they don’t keep marching.
“I, like you, continue to feel his presence,” the slain civil rights leader’s son, Martin Luther King III, warned. “I, like you, continue to hear his voice … But the task is not done. The journey is not complete. We can and we must do more.”
Saturday’s march kicked off five days of commemoration leading up to a closing rally Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Barack Obama, elected twice as the nation’s first African-American president, will speak at Wednesday’s rally, standing as living proof that in many ways, King’s dream – that his children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” – has come true.
But Saturday’s rally focused every bit as much on loss as it did on triumph, coming as it did six weeks after a Florida jury acquitted neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who fatally shot unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
Above all, though, Saturday’s rally seemed to be something of a generational passing of the torch, as older African-Americans who either recalled King’s speech or learned about it when they were young said, time and again, that they hoped the anniversary would kindle a new fire of activism among the young.
“I thought it would be a great bonding experience for me and my daughter,” said Ruby Andrew, 45, of Buffalo, whose 20-year-old daughter, Myesha Benjamin, stood at her side. “I wanted to let her know it’s okay to speak up for what you believe in.”
Most of the people in the crowd were far too young to have attended the original March on Washington, now remembered mostly through King’s soaring words and through black-and-white images of young men in suits and ties and young women clad in their Sunday best as they marched through the searing August heat to the Lincoln Memorial.
But many in the crowd remembered King’s address even if they were hundreds of miles from Washington on that hot summer day in 1963.
Brenda W. McDuffie, president and chief executive officer of the Buffalo Urban League, was 9 at the time and growing up in Brooklyn, where, she recalled, King’s speech was the talk of all the adults gathered on park benches in her neighborhood.
King inspired McDuffie to get active in the civil rights movement while still in school, and now she’s hoping the marches commemorating the anniversary of his speech can serve the same purpose.
“I really hope young people will be engaged, empowered and inspired by this,” she said.
That’s hugely important, McDuffie said, because King’s dream is by no means completely fulfilled.
“Young people see what happened to Trayvon Martin, and they realize it could have been them,” she added.
That worry is a live and present one for Dmitrian Knight, 24, of Buffalo, who said he fears that his younger brother, who’s 19, could someday find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“It hurts me to know that in some places, he may not be safe,” Knight said. “But the only way to change it is to get involved.”
That’s the very message that the Rev. Al Sharpton brought to the stage.
“He didn’t stand here and discuss the pain,” Sharpton, whose National Action Network sponsored Saturday’s event, said about King. “He didn’t stand here and express the anger. He said in the face of those that wanted him dead that no matter what you do, I can dream above what you do.”
That message was a hugely inspiring one to Grace Tate, 61, of Buffalo. She recalled that her parents held her out of school at the time of the March on Washington so that she could instead attend a “freedom school” at a church on Buffalo’s East Side, where she learned about the civil rights movements and locked arms with her fellow students while singing “We Shall Overcome.”
In many ways, African-Americans have done just that. The passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act followed King’s March on Washington, and the five decades since have seen the African-American poverty rate cut by half.
Still, though, it’s twice the rate as it is for whites, and that’s just one sign of what Tate still knows to be true.
“We still have a long way to go in terms of overcoming racism,” she said.
What concerns Tate most now are signs of backward movement, she said, citing voter ID laws and a recent Supreme Court decision limiting enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.
“It’s a little disappointing that we still have to fight for voting rights,” she said. “Let’s not have to go back and refight the fights we’ve won.” To hear the younger people at the rally talk, they’re more than willing to do just that.
“I’m here not just to mark the anniversary, but also to fight for more rights,” said Isabelle Garcia, 24, of Buffalo. “I think we need to pay a lot of attention, especially with what’s happening with voting rights.”
Meanwhile, the New York State United Teachers sponsored several buses that traveled from Buffalo to Washington, too.
Alva Johnson of Buffalo was there with the Urban League group, 50 years after King’s speech inspired her friends and family back in her native Jamaica.
“Martin Luther King opened my eyes to the commitment, regardless of the odds, of pursuing a dream and a goal that all people at one point can realize,” said Johnson, 61.
That dream, of course, includes economic opportunity for all, and Johnson and several other marchers of every generation said that’s a dream that’s still far from being realized.
“There’s still such a disparity between minorities and other groups in terms of jobs and unemployment,” said Jamal Crews, 32, of Buffalo.
Then again, there’s also a disparity between the 1960s, when civil rights leaders such as John Lewis found themselves beaten by authorities on the streets of the South, and today, when Lewis, D-Ga., serves as one of the most respected members of the House of Representatives.
But Lewis wasn’t resting on any laurels Saturday. Instead, just as he did at the first March on Washington, he took to the podium with a tough message: that the fight for civil rights never ends.
“I got arrested 40 times during the ’60s, beaten and left bloodied and unconscious,” said Lewis, 73. “But I’m not tired … I am ready to fight and continue to fight, and you must fight.”
Lewis, who was the youngest speaker at the rally 50 years ago, acknowledged that the fight was now largely in the hands of another generation. And soon after he left the stage, Asean Johnson of Chicago showed that the youngest of generations has some fight in it, too.
Dwarfed by the other speakers, Asean, 9, stood before the sea of faces in front of him and said: “I am marching for education, justice and freedom.”