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Tens of thousands of people flooded the Lincoln Memorial and the National Mall on Saturday, the first stop in a week of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s watershed “I Have A Dream” address and the March on Washington.
Speakers rallied the massive crowd with prayers for peace and calls for justice that were at once testaments to King’s historical legacy and nods to contemporary issues, from hotly debated policing tactics to income inequality.
Participants in the March on Washington fill the space between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument on Aug. 28, 1963.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who took the stage overlooking the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool just before noon, paid tribute to the forerunners of the modern civil rights movement.
“Their march is now our march, and it must go on,” Holder said.
“But for them,” Holder added later, “I would not be Attorney General of the United States, and Barack Obama would not be President of the United States.”
He reiterated previous criticisms of the Supreme Court’s decision in June to strike down a key anti-discrimination provision of 1965’s landmark Voting Rights Act, which triggered a wave of “cumbersome” voting laws in several states.
“This morning, we affirm that struggle must and will go on until every eligible American has a chance to exercise his or her right to vote," said Holder, who sued Texas over a strict voter ID law on Thursday.
Newark mayor Cory Booker, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Md.) urged activists to advocate for equality and fairness, placing recent social debates in the context of King’s vision.
“Many of our people still inhabit islands of poverty, are incapable of finding good jobs, have no voice in our democracy, because they are told they have no valid ID,” Hoyer said.
Booker, 44, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, called on young people to carry King's torch.
"Me and my generation cannot now afford to sit back consuming all of our blessings, getting dumb, fat and happy thinking we have achieved our freedoms," Booker said.
U.S. Rep John Lewis (D-Ga.), one of the pillars of King’s movement and the youngest speaker at the 1963 march, pressed the crowd to “fight the good fight” for freedom.
He energized spectators with a chant: “You’ve got to stand up, speak up, speak out, and get in the way! Make some noise!”
Saturday's march — co-organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network organization and King’s son, Martin Luther King III — is intended to protest “the continuing issues that have stood in the way” of fulfilling the goals of King’s iconic civil rights address, Sharpton said.
Rev. Al Sharpton
“To just celebrate Dr. King’s dream would give the false implication that we believe his dream has been fully achieved and we do not believe that,” Sharpton told The Associated Press. “We believe we've made a lot of progress toward his dream, but we do not believe we've arrived there yet.”
Rhonda Hearns, 50, a physician from Prince George's County, Md., who will attend the march, said matters such as voting rights, equal pay and discrimination show that there are many unresolved issues remaining.
“I feel very honored to be able to attend this commemoration 50 years later, but it also stirs up a lot of emotion because we still have so far to go," Hearns said.
"It’s still very important for people to show up and march again,” she added. “Just a peaceful demonstration, like what Dr. Martin Luther King would have wanted."
Sharpton is the founder and head of the National Action Network and the host of a show on MSNBC.
ivil rights organizations, organized labor, the LGBT community and women's rights groups all are expected to be richly represented in the gathering.
Among the organizations participating in the march Saturday are: National Urban League, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, American Federation of Teachers, Human Rights Campaign, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Black Justice Coalition, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Service Employees International Union.
Sharpton told the AP that Saturday’s observances are aimed to highlight key civil rights issues dominating the national conversation, including New York’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policing tactics, which critics have characterized as racial profiling, and Florida’s "Stand Your Ground" self-defense statute.
Those issues along with unemployment, health care and education are what will bring Yvette Young to the march. The 52-year-old Virginia resident and vice president at the Urban League of Hampton Roads hopes her daughter, 14, will have a better life than she did.
"My life hasn't been so bad, but I grew up in the 60s," Young said, adding that she had to witness a lot of discrimination. "I hope for a much better road for her," she added.
The organization is convening the event along with a range of civic, labor and business sponsors, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Sharpton and King III will be joined Saturday by the parents of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and relatives of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was abducted, beaten and shot in the head in 1955 in Mississippi after he was accused of flirting with a white woman, organizers said in a press release.
The so-called “Realize the Dream” march, which will cut a symbolic half-mile path from the Lincoln Memorial to the King Memorial, will also feature remarks from Attorney General Eric Holder, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., according to the release.
The march and rally will be followed by the “Let Freedom Ring” commemoration and call to action on Wednesday — marking exactly 50 years since King drew more than 200,000 to the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his groundbreaking “I Have A Dream” speech.
King's address is widely credited with spurring the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
Young said the events of 1963 carried a deep meaning for her.
“I always wished that I could’ve been a part of it," she said. "Tomorrow gives me a chance to be a part of it. It’s 50 years later, but I’ll be there.”
Speakers at the Wednesday observance will include President Barack Obama and former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, according to the event’s website.
Congressman John Lewis returns to Washington and talks about not giving up for equality.
March on Washington 50th Anniversary Celebrated