At March on Washington’s 60th anniversary, leaders seek energy of original movement for civil rights

Associated Press | 8/24/2023, 6 p.m.
Sixty years ago, Andrew Young and his staff had just emerged from an exhausting campaign against racial segregation in Birmingham, …
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, speaks to thousands during his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. The Associated Press file photo

Sixty years ago, Andrew Young and his staff had just emerged from an exhausting campaign against racial segregation in Birmingham, Ala.

But they didn’t feel no ways tired, as the Black spiritual says. The foot soldiers were on a “freedom high,” Mr. Young recalls.

“They wanted to keep on marching, they wanted to march from Birmingham to Washington,” he said.

And march they did, in the nation’s capital. Just four months later, they massed for what is still considered one of the greatest and most consequential racial justice demonstrations in U.S. history.

The nonviolent protest, which attracted as many as 250,000 to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, helped till the ground for passage of federal civil rights and voting rights legislation in the next few years.

But in the decades that followed, the rights gains feeding the freedom high felt by Mr. Young and others came under increasing threat. A close adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Young went on to become a congressman, a U.N. ambassador and Atlanta’s mayor. He sees clear progress from the time when Black Americans largely had no guarantee of equal rights under the law. But he hasn’t ignored the setbacks.

“We take two steps forward, and they make us take one step back,” Mr. Young told The Associated Press in an interview at the offices of his Atlanta-based foundation.

“It’s a slow process that depends on the politics of the nation.”

At 91 years old, an undeterred Mr. Young will gather again with Black civil rights leaders and a multiracial, interfaith coalition of allies on Saturday to mark 60 years since the first March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an event most widely remembered for Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

March on Washington

Free Press staff report:

Want to take part in the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom this weekend?

Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity is offering a free bus ride to the nation’s capital for this event on Saturday, Aug. 26.

The bus is to leave from the Walmart parking lot at 7901 Brook Road at 7 a.m. and return at 7 p.m., according to the announcement, which states the offer is open to anyone.

Contractor and fraternity member Darrell Stuckey said the fraternity has chartered two buses and still has space for about 28 people. Details: Mr. Stuckey, (240) 413-2000 or Rob Quarles, Robq19@gmail.com.

The event aims to highlight the historic event Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. organized in 1963 to push for an end to the oppression of Black people and also to call on people to continue the struggle, according to the website on the march. Dr. King was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha.

But organizers of this year’s commemoration don’t see this as an occasion for kumbaya — not in the face of eroded voting rights nationwide, after the recent striking down of affirmative action in college admissions and abortion rights by the Supreme Court, and amid growing threats of political violence and hatred against people of color, Jews and the LGBTQ community.

The issues today appear eerily similar to the issues in 1963. The undercurrent of it all is that Black people are still the eco- nomically poorest in American society.

Organizers intend to remind the nation that the original march wasn’t just about dreaming of a country that lived up to its promises of equality and liberty to pursue happiness. They wanted legislative action then, and they want the same now.

The survival of American democracy depends on it, the organizers say.

“It’s inevitable to me that this nation, as Martin Luther King said, will live out, one day, the true meaning of its creed,” Mr. Young declared.

Six decades ago, from the steps of the monument to President Abraham Lincoln, Dr. King began his most famous speech by decrying economic disparity, quality of life issues, police brutality and voter disenfranchisement. He brought his remarks home with the sermonic delivery of his dream of social and class harmony transcending racial and ethnic lines in America.

His words have resounded through decades of push and pull toward progress in civil and human rights. Today, the March on Washington is a marker by which racial progress is measured. But drivers of that progress — namely the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — have teetered precariously on the edges of partisanship.

“(King) said in the speech, ‘We come to here, Mr. Lincoln, because 100 years ago, in 1863, you promised that we’d be full citizens, and America has not fulfilled the promise,’” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network and co-convener of the 60th commemoration of the march.

Dr. King also said America had given Black Americans a check for equality that had been marked “insufficient funds” in the bank of justice.

“They came (to Washington) in ’63 to say the check bounced,” Sharpton said. “We come in ’23 ... to say the check didn’t bounce this time. They put a stop payment on the check. And we’re coming to say, ‘You’re going to take stop payment off the check, and you will pay your debt.’”

This is at least the third time that Rev. Sharpton has organized a commemoration of the March on Washington. There was a march in 2000, the 37th anniversary of Dr. King’s speech, focused on police brutality and racial profiling. Thirteen years later, the late Rep. John Lewis, who at the time was the last living speaker from the original march, and a host of celebrities, athletes and politicians attended the 50th anniversary commemoration.

Each time, Rev. Sharpton has partnered with members of Dr. King’s family. Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of the late civil rights icon, and his wife, Arndrea Waters King, head the Drum Major Institute and are co-conveners of this year’s march. A list of march partners includes about 100 other civil rights, faith and cultural organizations.

Rev. Sharpton’s organization expects tens of thousands to attend on Saturday.

Part of the success of the original march was its turnout, said author Michael Long, who next month will publish the book “Bayard Rustin: A Legacy of Protest and Politics,” which celebrates the march’s chief architect.

“Rustin really believed that the power on that day would be in numbers created by this coalition that he put together of Black civil rights activists, people from faith communities and progressive workers in the labor rights movement,” Mr. Long said.

“Civil disobedience attracts the hardcore few,” he added, “but when you get 250,000 people together on the National Mall, you serve notice on the political leaders of the day.”