As Alphonso David, president and CEO of the Global Black Economic Forum asked the crowd, “have we reached the mountaintop? Not by a long shot.”
The event, sponsored by the King’s (Martin Luther King III and Arndrea Waters King) Drum Major Institute, and the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, assembled a host of multiracial, interfaith coalitions, Black civil rights leaders and grassroots activists to the site where nearly 250,000 convened on August 28, 1963, and Dr. King shared his vision for the future, saying, “I have a dream today.”
In stark contrast to the initial, historic demonstration, both the chosen speakers and scores of banners on display throughout the crowd, illustrated the importance of a new cadre of Americans seeking justice including Asian Americans and LGBTQ citizens. In addition, women this year far outnumbered the sole female voice allowed to speak in 1963.
Meanwhile, the slew of Black celebrities who came out in force in support of Dr. King’s efforts 60 years ago were noticeably absent – replaced by a smaller but more diverse group of ordinary people coming from as far away as Detroit, Florida and New York and as close as the campus of Howard University in D.C., including Kyndell Baskin, 18, Kennedi Foust, 19, and Morgan Scott, 19.
Kyndell said her grandmother attended the first march and she wanted to continue the tradition. “I recognize the importance of the Civil Rights Movement and how King and others paved the way for the rights I now enjoy and I wanted to be part of the struggle today,” she said. “I feel blessed to be able to walk with my people and to be part of a new generation of Black leaders.”
The commute was farther for 42 members and supporters of Newark’s People’s Organization For Progress (POP) who boarded a bus early Saturday morning for the five-hour ride to the District. “The march in ’63 resulted in significant gains for African Americans but many of those rights are now being eradicated, so I see this not as a celebration but as a protest,” said Lawrence Hamm, POP chairman.
“I’m concerned and believe we must regroup, reassess, reinvigorate, strategize and work together to regain the ground we have lost and continue to lose at the hands of those who represent today’s versions of the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens Council and other like-minded white supremacists,” he said.
Dr. Catherine Alicia Georges, now retired from her post as professor and chairman of the Department of Nursing at Lehman College of the City University of New York, remembered being a junior at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, in 1963. Unable to attend the march because of family obligations in her native Virgin Islands, she said this time she refused to be deterred.
“I live in the Bronx which has the worst health indices of any city in the U.S.,” she said. “The COVID numbers continue to impact our community including 30 of my graduates. So, I’m not sure if I can be optimistic about the future. Racism is so thoroughly embedded in America – it affects everything. We are among the most vulnerable but we lack adequate numbers of Black doctors, nurses and pharmacists who are more aware of our needs and the extent of our daily struggles to survive – just to make it – in America.”
Miranda Hill Jones traveled from Detroit by car with her husband, Dr. Ural Hill. Both graduates of the University of Michigan, they shared their views about why they attended the march and what they hope to see change in the future. “Today could be the start of a newly energized movement but only if we find a way for our children to become fully connected to the cause,” Jones said. “Our children are unaware of the proud legacy of Blacks in America – they don’t know our history. And sadly, many of them have little interest in the fight for equal justice until they become a victim.”
“I came to celebrate as a proud child of the movement,” Hill said. “I was licensed to preach and ordained at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, attended seminary at Morehouse and have long lived and breathed every facet of Dr. King’s nonviolent campaign and the beloved community. We must continue to protest and make our voices heard. It’s not over, not yet.”
Martin Luther King III, at the conclusion of the program and before the march component of the event began, expressed his concern about the direction in which America appears to be headed. “Instead of moving forward, we are moving backwards,” he said. “Do we realize that it’s ‘we the people?’ We are not personifying the greatness of our people. I cannot say how long it will take for us to fulfill my father’s dream but I do know that God almighty is still on the throne. It just takes a few good men and women who are committed to the cause and who refuse to be denied.”