Wednesday’s commemoration in Washington, D.C. celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which featured Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famed “I Have A Dream” speech. Like the march 50 years ago, today’s assembly was about not only celebrating 50 years of accomplishments, but what identifying what remains to be achieved.
Speeches from Oprah Winfrey , Caroline Kennedy, Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, Reverend Al Sharpton, President Lyndon Johnson’s daughter Lynda Johnson Robb, Martin Luther King Jr.’s sister Christine King Farris, civil rights leaders Reverend Joseph Lowery and Julian Bond, along with many other environmental, labor, and LGBT activists all took the opportunity to speak to many issues that we face today: among them immigration, LGBT rights, the Voting Rights Act, women’s rights, jobs and economic growth, stop-and-frisk, homelessness, health care reform, gun reform, and fair wages.
President Obama’s remarks were certainly a highlight of the afternoon, but the entire day was filled with moving speeches from a multitude of influential leaders. Here are seven highlights from the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
Photo: Brendan Smialowski via AFP.com
Representative Joaquin Castro
Representative Joaquin Castro (D-TX) spoke early in Wednesday’s program. He referenced his own parents, who were involved in the Chicano and Latino civil rights movements in the 1960s.
“I want to say thank you to them and thank you to all of you,” Castro said. “I also want to make a promise to you as somebody of a younger generation of Americans, I want to promise you that all of the struggles, and all of the fights, and all of the work, and all of the years that you put in to making our country a better place, to helping our leaders understand that freedom and democracy are prerequisites to opportunity, I want you to know that this generation of American will not let that dream go. That we will carry on and make sure that this country lives up to the values and principles for which you fought so hard.”
Retired five-time NBA Most Valuable Player, 12-time All-Star, first African-American coach, 2011 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and civil rights leader Bill Russell was invited by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. to join him onstage on August 28, 1963.
Russell declined and instead watched from the audience. On Wednesday, he spoke of the progress made over the last 50 years. “Lately I’ve heard a lot about how far we have come in 50 years, but from my point of view, you only register progress by how far you have to go,” he said. “But I’m here to join you and to inform you, the fight has just begun. And we can never accept the status quo until the word progress is taken out of our vocabulary.”
Journalist and NAACP chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams found herself following in the footsteps of her husband Medgar Evers as a civil rights activist, while fighting for justice after he was assassinated in 1963 by a white supremacist.
“The movement can no longer afford an individual approach to justice. Ours is an interconnected struggle — black, white, male, female, young, old, everyone — we are all entitled to and protected by this country this country we call home,” Evers-Williams said. “And at times it is necessary that we let those who represent us on Capitol Hill, those who represent us in our communities, know that we are a force to be reckoned with.”
Martin Luther King III
Martin Luther King III was only five years old when his father gave his famous speech in Washington, D.C. On Wednesday, King made observations about how far society has come, and how we should go about continuing to promote equality.
“Love and forgiveness is what we need more of, not just in our nation, but really throughout the world. And so I want to rush to tell you, Dad said the ultimate measure of human being is where one stands, not in times of comfort and convenience but where he stands in time of challenge and controversy,” King said. “So he often talked about sometimes we must take positions that are neither safe, nor popular, nor politic, but we must take those positions because our conscience tells us they’re right.”
President Jimmy Carter
Former president Jimmy Carter said his presidency, along with those of Presidents Clinton and Obama, were made possible because of Martin Luther King Jr. and the successes of the March on Washington and the civil rights movement.
The Carter Center is located right next door to a national historic site where Dr. King lived, the two connected physically by a path as well as by their identical mission — promoting human rights and peace.
“I believe we all know how Dr. King would have reacted to the new ID requirements to exclude certain voters, especially African-Americans,” Carter said. “I think we all know how Dr. King would have reacted to the Supreme Court striking down a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act just recently overwhelmingly passed by Congress.” He went on to outline other policy failures, including unemployment among African-Americans, increased gun violence, implementation of “stand your ground” laws, and high incarceration rates.
“Well, there’s a tremendous agenda ahead of us,” Carter concluded. “And I’m thankful to Martin Luther King, Jr. that his dream is still alive.”
President Bill Clinton
President Clinton focused on many specific issues that are challenges today—specifically the political partisanship and gridlock that make any type of progress in Congress nearly impossible.
“I would respectfully suggest that Martin Luther King did not live and die to hear his heirs whine about political gridlock. It is time to stop complaining and put our shoulders against the stubborn gates holding the American people back,” Clinton said.
“And let us not forget that while racial divides persist and must not be denied, the whole American landscape is littered with the lost dreams and dashed hopes of people of all races,” he continued. “And the great irony of the current moment is that the future has never burned with more possibilities, it has never burned brighter than what we could become if we pushed open those stubborn gates and if we do it together. The choice remains as it was on the distant summer day 50 years ago, cooperate and thrive or fight with each other and fall behind.”
Representative John Lewis
Representative John Lewis (D-GA), the only living speaker from the 1963 March on Washington, gave a moving speech recounting his experience over the last 50 years.
“Sometimes I hear people saying ‘nothing has changed,’ but for someone to grow up the way I grew up in the cotton fields of Alabama, to now be serving in the United States Congress, makes me want to tell them: Come and walk in my shoes. Come walk in the shoes of those attacked by police dogs, firehoses and nightsticks, arrested and taken to jail.” Lewis said.
“But there are still invisible signs buried in the hearts of humankind that form a gulf between us. Too many of us still believe our differences define us instead of the divine spark that runs through all of human creation. Discards and stains of racism still remain deeply embedded in American society,” Lewis went on. “So I say to each one of us today we must never ever give up, we must never ever give in, we must keep the faith and keep our eyes on the prize.”