The March on Washington, 50 Years Later

Mike Magner

For the next 10 days Washington will be transported a half-century back in time to relive one of the most powerful and defining moments in American history.

The March on Washington brought more than a quarter-million people to the nation's capital on Aug. 28, 1963, for what many consider a key turning point in the civil-rights movement. The historic rally was highlighted by the "I Have a Dream" speech delivered by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Few realized it at the time—King's speech did not even make the front page of The Washington Post the next day—but the calls for equal justice that echoed across the National Mall 50 years ago would be at least partially realized a year later with enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Now, in the face of some erosion of the landmark law and during a time of ongoing racial tensions in the United States, hundreds of thousands of marchers plan to return to Washington to commemorate the events of 1963 with not one, but two massive rallies on the Mall and a week-long series of services, discussions, and celebrations centered around the theme of "Jobs, Justice, and Freedom."

"The response to our call to commemorate the March on Washington and my father's 'I Have A Dream' speech has been overwhelming," said Bernice A. King, who was exactly five months old when her father gave his best-known speech. "We expect hundreds of thousands of people to join us in the nation's capital for this historic event, and many more to take part worldwide in their communities."

King, who now heads the family's King Center in Atlanta, has been the driving force behind the commemoration events that kick off in Washington on Wednesday with a worship service at the Mt. Airy Baptist Church just north of the Capitol.

But since the initial organizing meeting about a year ago in Atlanta, attended by about 30 civil-rights leaders, at least 200 people have been working steadily to plan a series of events that would appropriately mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, said King Center spokesman Steve Klein.

The biggest event in terms of participants will be the "Realize the Dream March and Rally" to be held Saturday on the National Mall. Organized by Martin Luther King III, King's oldest son, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, leader of the National Action Network based in Harlem, "it is going to be huge," Klein said. "Nobody knows" how many people will show up, but it will almost certainly be in the hundreds of thousands, he said.

Participants will gather at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday morning "to stand together against the recent attack on voter rights, against Stand Your Ground and racial profiling, and to continue to raise awareness on unemployment, poverty, gun violence, immigration, gay rights and other critical issues affecting our nation," the National Action Network said in a statement about the rally.

On Friday the "Global Freedom Festival" begins in West Potomac Park and will continue through the weekend. The festival is sponsored by the King Center and groups involved in the 1963 march, including the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the National Urban League.

The main event will be the "Let Freedom Ring Commemoration and Call to Action Ceremony" at the Lincoln Memorial on the afternoon of  Aug. 28. President Obama will speak from the same spot where King gave the "I Have a Dream" speech. He will be joined by former Presidents Carter and Clinton and a host of political and cultural leaders, including actor Jamie Foxx and Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of the president who signed the Civil Rights Act.

Some members of Congress are expected to participate in the week of events, even though the August recess has most lawmakers away from Washington. The Congressional Black Caucus held a commemoration of the March on Washington before recess began and many of its members plan to participate in Saturday's march, said CBC spokeswoman Ayofemi Kirby.