On Saturday, thousands of people streamed onto the National Mall in Washington, D.C., from cities across the country. Called together by the National Action Network — the civil rights organization led by the Rev. Al Sharpton — and labor and other social-justice groups, some seemed content to simply be there or continue what they described as a family legacy. Others said they wanted to find a way to add their efforts to what they hope will be a reinvigorated civil rights movement. What they found amounted to an admixture of commemoration and calls to action on a range of political and social challenges.
Baylor sat on the National Mall with his friend Lambert as he reminisced of attending the first March on Washington. Many of the key speakers have now all died, he said, but being there still moves him to tears as he watches his peers now marching with walkers, canes and wheelchairs. "Oppression is oppression no matter ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender or nationality," said Lambert, who recently married his partner in New York City. "Fifty years ago, it was hard to believe we would be marching for the same things today."
Roberts, 67, didn't participate in the first March on Washington, but said he felt compelled to walk alongside his family this year for voting rights, justice and freedom. It was of great importance, Jones said, for his granddaughter, Dimi Jones, 11, and her friend Eryn Joyer, 11, to witness the event. It's a tradition that must become a family legacy, he said. "Our ancestors didn't die in vain, because now we are their testimony."
Jones was determined to ride his bike 700 miles to Washington, D.C., for the March on Washington. After three accidents and suffering a bruise that covers his entire right arm, he called off his journey after more than 300 miles. He drove the rest of the way with the help of a friend, but his "freedom ride" wasn't about completion, he said. "It was about understanding trouble and pain."
It was 5 a.m. when Allen and Bonner arrived at Lincoln Memorial. The two members of the Delta Sigma Theta Iota chapter stayed at the reflecting pool for the next six hours handing out 2,000 protest posters. "This isn't just an event to me," Allen said. "This is what I do."
Bonner said she, too, was moved to attend having experienced racial inequality as a student in Boston. "A big thing I noticed is that the younger generation is here," she said. "We are here for change."
Alston, an army veteran, relied on his cane on his way to Lincoln Memorial. He walks in pain because of the bullet wounds he suffered in Vietnam, but he wanted to be as close as possible. "I was here for the first march," he said. "I'm here again to fight. I speak for myself, but I see a lot of trouble for our country." Trouble with voting rights and viable employment options for black men weigh heavily on the disabled infantryman. But he has particular concern for younger generations.
It was near midday as people began to fill an area near the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool, and it was that where McKenzie held posters combating sex slavery. McKenzie said she was forced into prostitution in New York City after a pimp promised to pay for her college education. "He beat me nearly to unconsciousness," she said. "I was enslaved and tried everything to escape. I lived in fear." She found freedom with the help of a stranger, and now, she said, she must be present at the march as a survivor and to raise awareness for freedom for all.
As the couple lay in one another's arms, they said they found no better way to celebrate their recent marriage than by honoring civil rights activists who helped pave the way for equality. "I grabbed a newspaper and read about the march and knew we had to come," Snow said. "It's a melting pot of ideas, and we hope we're still around to come back in 50 years."
Memories of racial brutality as a child still resonate with Ball, a native of Summerton, S.C. "I experienced some really disturbing things," said Ball, 72. But she said she, too, shared a dream with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and she was present today to see it become a reality. In time, she said, equality and justice will prevail with hard work. "God has got us here, and He will see us forward," she said. "He always has the last word."
Mina, 48, is a single mother to two daughters and a part-time Princeton University Divinity School student. But Mina found the time to attend the National Action Network's March on Washington. "I wanted my daughters to see history in making," Mina said. "But I also think this is one of those moments that can help them connect with who they are and what they have the capacity to do. "
To Ifill, 51, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., the story of American racial progress is one studded with extreme highs followed shortly by terrible lows. "Yes, we are here to commemorate and to acknowledge … but, most importantly, we are here to speak truth to power," said Ifill. "We want Congress to fix the [Voting Rights Act] and we absolutely cannot allow 'Stand your ground' laws to remain. They deny us our rights and allow anyone to stalk and kill our children with impunity. That is not OK with this community."