By Paul Lewis in Washington, DC.
The silhouettes of marching crowds appeared as soon as dawn broke over the Lincoln memorial on Saturday. By the time the sun cast its first shadow over the Washington monument’s obelisk, thousands of people had lined the sides of the reflective pool.
In a capital that supposedly lives and breathes politics, mass demonstrations are surprisingly rare. But the 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington, which culminated, in 1963, withMartin Luther King‘s “I have a dream” speech, had taken over the city. There were concerts, exhibitions, seminars, town hall rallies and church services.
“This is not the time for nostalgic commemoration,” said Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of the civil rights leader. “Nor is this the time for self-congratulatory celebration. The task is not done. The journey is not complete. We can and we must do more.”
Attorney general Eric Holder said he and President Obama would not be in office without those who marched.
“They marched in spite of animosity, oppression and brutality because they believed in the greatness of what this nation could become and despaired of the founding promises not kept,” he said.
Streets in downtown Washington that would normally be deserted in August, the month of the congressional recess, were thronging with visitors on Saturday, from Mississippi, Alabama, California, Illinois. For $10, they could buy a Martin Luther King T-shirt and a commemorative copy of the 2008 Washington Post reportingÂ Barack Obama‘s election.
The events will culminate on Wednesday with a religious sermon, at which Obama, the country’s first black president, will make a speech from the same spot where King addressed the nation half a century ago. In a sentimental, patriotic country, which often constructs its identity through nostalgia, that will be a poignant moment. Obama, who keeps a framed programme of the original march in the Oval Office, and is perhaps as well known for soaring oratory as King was, has been preparing his speech.
“Fifty years after the March on Washington and the ‘I have a dream’ speech, obviously we’ve made enormous strides,” the president said on Friday, in a foretaste of his speech. “I’m a testament to it.”
But for many of those present at the march, pride at the advances made since King’s speech was tempered with a sense of frustration about the treatment of African Americans.
“People think that because we have a black president, black people have overcome discrimination,” said Deborah Taylor, 51, who travelled to the march with her two disabled children from a remote corner of Virginia. “But I think it has made it worse. People now have an excuse to stop doing anything. While we celebrate our black president, we don’t realise we’re slipping back 50 years.”
The lead-up to the commemoration had been marred by two events that, many demonstators argued, reveal the great distance that still needs to be travelled before King’s dream is realised.
The first was a supreme court decision in effect to dismantle one of the key enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act, a groundbreaking law that ensured equal access to the polls in mostly southern states.
Congressman John Lewis, the only surviving speaker from the 1963 march, spoke out against the decision.
“I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Alabama, for the right to vote,” he said. “I am not going to stand by and let the supreme court take the right to vote away from us. You cannot stand by. You cannot sit down. You’ve got to stand up. Speak up, speak out and get in the way.”
The second was the decision by a jury in Florida last month to acquit George Zimmerman over the killing of the black teenager Trayvon Martin. The 17-year-old’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, were at the demonstration â€“Â and a large number of protesters were wearing T-shirts with an image of his face.
“I don’t think we will truly appreciate the impact of the Zimmerman verdict until 10 or 20 years from now,” said Daniel Marree, 25, who led a nationwide hoodie-wearing movement in response to the case. “The sense of injustice in this case is just so palpable, so devastating, not just to African Americans and people of colour, but people of every race and religion.”
The original march in 1963 became a seminal moment for America. Twenty-one charter trains pulled into Union Station, bringing marchers from across the country, particularly the south. At the peak, 100 buses an hour rolled through the Baltimore tunnel from the north. Police estimated the crowd at the Mall to be around 250,000, but some argue the crowd was far larger, possibly numbering as many as half a million. Tens of thousands were there today.
The march, and King’s speech, gave the campaign for equal rights an unstoppable momentum, convincing lawmakers of the need to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act â€“ two legislative pillars to emerge from the civil rights era.
But the march was also about jobs. And it is on the economic front that African Americans have arguably made the smallest gains over the past 50 years. In 1963, the unemployment rate was 5% for white people and 10.9% for black people. Today the rate of unemployment is slightly higher â€“ 6.6% for white people and 14% for black people â€“ but the disparity is just as wide. And the gap in household income has increased.
Washington itself is a city divided by race. There may be a black family in the White House, but the rest of the city is split into black neighbourhoods and white neighbourhoods, and in the cafes, restaurants and bars in downtown DC, predominantly white customers are served by dark-skinned staff.
Roderick Harrison, a Howard University academic who has documented the city’s rapid transition in recent years, says the city has become startlingly polarised. “It has become a mecca for the professionally educated,” he said. “That has happened while poverty has been concentrated in areas that have spiralled downwards.”
The District of Columbia now has the highest percentage of people with graduate degrees in the country. Yet a recent study found that 37% of the city’s residents are functionally illiterate.
“We’re fighting the same fights we did 50 years ago,” said Ted Dean, 75, from Flomaton, Alabama, who attended the 1963 march. “It was one of the highlights of my life. The whole pool was full of people and there were people in the trees. I was trying to raise a young family at that time and for me it was about trying to make the country better.”
He added: “Today we’re here asking for jobs, better healthcare, voter rights, better education. Those were the very same things we were asking for then.”
The message may not have changed much, but one notable shift is the makeup of the crowd making the demands. The 1963 march was a multi-racial affair, in which around one in five of the participants were white; many saw the crowd as a symbol of the kind of post-racial society America could become. Yesterday there were white faces, but the proportion was perhaps less than one in 10.
“The average white American probably thinks that the need for affirmative action is now over â€“ that we can start rolling back on the achievements we made back then,” said John E Jones, an airline pilot from Fayette County, Georgia. “Hopefully this march will show the rest of America that things have not changed as much as they thought. We’re making the same point, over and over.”
Marian Williams, 75, from Georgia, said the lack of white participants was disappointing. “There were a lot of white folks who were standing in solidarity with us in the 60s. You don’t have that now. And that is sad. Back then we couldn’t go to a movie theatre with whites or drink from the same water fountain. We can go to the same places now, but communities are still segregated.”
There are some, particularly younger African American activists, who blame black civil rights leaders for harking back to old traditions, rather than seeking new bridges. Patriarchal figures like the Rev Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who organised Saturday’s march, and have been dominating the airwaves, still emulate the language and style of civil rights icons from more than half a century ago.
Others blame the media for polarising America. “We’re always portrayed as being separate,” said Ernestine Green, 51, who attended the march with her daughter and a white friend, Terry Goolsby.
“Why then, would white people want to come to a black march? But it is a problem â€“ we should be standing together.”
As many people did yesterday, Green quoted Martin Luther King. “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies,” she said, “but the silence of our friends.”
This article first appeared in the Black Report.