On the anniversary of the iconic March on Washington, civil rights leaders and a diverse coalition of allies convened at the historic gathering site to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and advocate for renewed commitment to social justice. The event, convened by the Kings’ Drum Major Institute and the National Action Network, aimed to rekindle the spirit of the 1963 march, which played a pivotal role in advancing civil rights and voting rights legislation.
The original March on Washington, a cornerstone of the civil rights movement, drew approximately 250,000 participants in 1963. Its influence paved the way for significant legislative milestones, including the passage of federal civil rights and voting rights laws in the 1960s. The erosion of voting rights, recent Supreme Court rulings that impact affirmative action and abortion rights, and the rise of hate and violence against marginalized communities, however, punctuate the current commemoration.
Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of the civil rights icon, along with his sister Bernice King, visited their father’s monument in Washington on the eve of the event. Bernice King shared her reflections, stating, “I see a man still standing in authority and saying, ‘We’ve still got to get this right.’”
Addressing the urgency of the occasion, King III emphasized, “This is not a traditional commemoration. This really is a rededication.” Among the featured speakers was Ambassador Andrew Young, a close adviser to Dr. King during the original march and a key figure in the civil rights movement. Leaders from the NAACP and the National Urban League also delivered impactful remarks.
Arndrea Waters King also addressed the tens of thousands on the mall. “We are here to liberate the soul of the nation, the soul of democracy from those forces who want to have us all go backwards and perish rather than go forward as sisters and brothers,” she stated. “We will never betray those who marched for us, fought for us, lived for us, died for us. We are the children and grandchildren of their struggles, and we will be worthy of their sacrifices.”
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York also spoke during the event. “We’re here today to fight for voting rights,” urged Jeffries, the first Black congressperson to lead a major political party in Congress. “We’re here today to fight for civil rights. We’re here today to fight for reproductive rights. We’re here today to fight for workers’ rights,” he said.
Notably absent from the program were several individuals who had worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., such as Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. and the Rev. Peter Johnson, a Plaquemine, Louisiana, native and close aide to civil rights giant Andrew Young, and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Despite their significant contributions to the movement, they did not receive invitations to participate in the commemoration, shedding light on the challenge of preserving historical continuity and recognizing all those who played a role. However, Chavis was spotted among the crowd giving a hug to an unidentified Jewish man who had singled him out. “We were here 60 years ago, and we were both 15,” the man said to Chavis.
America’s “Black Attorney General,” civil rights lawyer Ben Crump embraced his hard-earned moniker, whipping the crowd into a frenzy by insisting that he would fight “until hell freezes over.” “As your attorney general, I declare now more than ever, that we must be unapologetic defenders of Black life, liberty, and humanity,” Crump remarked. “Just like they try to ban our Black history, we must tell them without Black history, you would not have American history. Just as the fight for the families of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tyre Nichols and so many others, Americans must now fight for Black literature and culture.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson, another prominent civil rights-era figure, wasn’t expected to attend due to ongoing health concerns. The absence of these veteran activists threw a damper on an otherwise remarkable occasion.
Ahead of the event, several organizers engaged in discussions with Attorney General Merrick Garland and Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the civil rights division. The talks encompassed crucial issues like voting rights, policing reform, and addressing redlining practices.
The commemoration served as a prelude to the upcoming 60th anniversary of the original March on Washington, which President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris plan to observe on Monday, Aug. 28. During that scheduled meeting, Biden and Harris will engage with organizers of the 1963 march as well as members of the King family, aiming to honor the legacy of the event and its enduring impact on the struggle for civil rights.
As Rev. Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, reflected on the continuous observance of March on Washington anniversaries, he recalled a promise he made to Coretta Scott King, the matriarch of the King family. Twenty-three years ago, she urged him and Martin Luther King III to continue the movement’s legacy. Sharpton, who didn’t serve during the early civil rights movement like Chavis, Johnson, Young, Jackson, and others, expressed his dedication to this cause, emphasizing the need to persist despite setbacks in civil rights protections.
The challenges the civil rights movement faced weren’t confined to the past; history revealed moments of triumph and tragedy. Following Dr. King’s landmark speech in 1963, dark incidents such as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham and the abduction and murder of civil rights workers in Mississippi underscored the ongoing struggle. Those tragedies spurred the passage of pivotal legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Bernice King, CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, acknowledged the weariness that can accompany the enduring fight for civil rights. She invoked her mother’s wisdom, stating, “Mother said, struggle is a never-ending process… Vigilance is the answer.”