Race
4:07 pm
Sat August 24, 2013

50 Years Later, A March On Washington Among Generations

Originally published on Mon August 26, 2013 2:55 pm

They came by the beat of drums: grandparents with their grandchildren, community organizers and activists, church members and college students.

A slow, early-morning trickle of foot traffic out of the subway and off tour buses grew into a steady stream. By mid-morning, thousands filled around the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial for a 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Many carried blue-and-yellow, poster board signs distributed by NAACP volunteers like Moné Armah of Houston, who stood by boxes where marchers could choose from a menu of printed slogans — from "We March For Jobs And Freedom" to "Protect Voting Rights."

The signs echoed similar calls for economic opportunities for all Americans 50 years ago. Back then, Todd Endo of Amissville, Va., helped carry a blue banner calling for "Better Americans For A Greater America," as he, his mother and other members of the Japanese American Citizens League walked across the National Mall.

Endo, now 71, stood near the reflecting pool while Martin Luther King Jr., declared his dream to the world. But Endo couldn't hear King's words. "The audio [system] wasn't very good. They had no video," he explained. "You could barely see the Lincoln Memorial, so we didn't hear any of the speeches."

'Waiting For The Check'

Fifty years ago, Jo Ann Johnson from the Bronx in New York City also stood on the National Mall. She was barely a teenager then. This time she arrived early with a folding chair and sandwiches for a better view of the speaker's podium.

Johnson recalled the metaphorical "check" from America's "bank of justice" that King mentioned in his 1963 speech. The check was supposed to extend "the riches of freedom and the security of justice" to all African-Americans. But Johnson said as an African-American in 2013, she's "still waiting for the check."

Just two years old when King spoke, Eric Cole of Cincinnati was too young to understand the struggle in 1963. There's been progress over the years, but he said he's a "realist."

"I'm not looking for any miracles" to come out of the march's commemoration, Cole explained. "But I'm hoping that at least the consciousness will be raised about high unemployment."

From The Podium

Consciousness was just one of the goals for the national leaders who spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Attorney General Eric Holder emphasized in his speech that America's struggle for justice will go on "until every eligible American has the chance to exercise his or her right to vote, unencumbered by discriminatory or unneeded procedures, rules, or practices" and the criminal justice system "can ensure that all are treated equally and fairly in the eyes of the law" — references to recent policy pushes at the Justice Department under his leadership.

Other speakers called for the repeal of "stand your ground" laws, a central focus in the Florida trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of teenager Trayvon Martin. Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of the slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, urged the crowd to apply a different meaning to the name of the controversial law.

"We can think of 'standing your ground' in the negative." Evers-Williams said. "But I ask you today to flip that coin. Stand your ground in terms of fighting for justice and equality!"

Paying It Forward

Evers-Williams represented an earlier generation of civil rights leaders who took to the podium. That generation, Rev. Al Sharpton underlined in his keynote speech, paved the way to success for younger generations.

"You got there because some unleaded grandmas, who never saw [an] inside of a college campus [and] put [their] bodies on the line in Alabama and Mississippi and sponsored you up here," said Sharpton, founder and president of the National Action Network, which helped organize Saturday's event.

Cory Booker, the 44-year-old mayor of Newark, N.J., and U.S. Senate candidate, directed his speech to his peers who, like him, "were not even alive" for the 1963 March on Washington.

"I call upon my generation to understand that we can never pay back the struggles and the sacrifices of the generation before," he said. "But it is our moral obligation to pay it forward."

It's a call to action that inspires Kwanzaa Nivens, 38, of Washington, D.C.

"Just to hear what a lot of people went through 50 years ago to get us to where we are today, it really motivates me to do more."

For Nivens, doing "more" on Saturday meant marching to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and then the Washington Monument in her tennis shoes. She'll lace them up again on Wednesday as a volunteer at another commemoration on the March on Washington's official 50th anniversary.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

A. PHILIP RANDOLPH: Fellow Americans, we are gathered here in the largest demonstration in the history of this nation.

LYDEN: Fifty years ago next week, civil rights leader and march organizer A. Philip Randolph welcomed hundreds of thousands of people to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RANDOLPH: I have the pleasure to present to you Dr. Martin Luther King J-R.

LYDEN: The March on Washington for jobs and freedom on August 28, 1963 was the high point of the civil rights movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I have a dream that one day, this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.

LYDEN: Today, the National Mall filled with people there to re-walk the historic march route to remember how far we've come as a nation since that day and to reflect on how far we still have to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

LYDEN: Hansi Lo Wang of NPR's Code Switch team was at the gathering, and he has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: They came by the beat of drums - grandparents with their grandchildren, committee organizers and activists, church members and college students. A slow, early-morning trickle of foot traffic out of the subway and off tour buses grew into a steady stream. By midmorning, thousands filled around the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

MONE ARMAH: Come get a sign if you're going to the march. Take as many as you like.

WANG: Many carried blue and yellow poster board signs distributed by NAACP volunteer Mone Armah of Houston, Texas.

ARMAH: We have We March for Jobs and Freedom, We Want to March to Protect Voting Rights. So we have about five or six different signs here.

WANG: Signs that echoed similar calls for economic opportunities for all Americans 50 years ago. Back then, Todd Endo of Amissville, Virginia, helped carry a blue banner calling for Better Americans for a Greater America, as he walked across the National Mall. You were here 50 years ago.

TODD ENDO: I was. Just about at this spot.

WANG: Endo was 21 when he, his mother and other members of the Japanese American Citizens League marched in 1963.

ENDO: The audio wasn't very good. They had no video. You could barely see the Lincoln Memorial, so we didn't hear any of the speeches.

WANG: Did you hear Dr. King?

ENDO: No.

WANG: You didn't hear Dr. - you were here, and you didn't hear Dr. King?

ENDO: No, not live.

WANG: Fifty years ago, Jo Ann Johnson from the Bronx in New York City also stood on the mall. She was barely a teenager. Do you remember where you were standing?

JO ANN JOHNSON: All the way back there. All the way back.

WANG: You have a really good view right now.

JOHNSON: Yes, we do.

WANG: Sitting beside the reflecting pool, Johnson recalls the check Martin Luther King Jr. mentioned in his 1963 speech. The check from America's metaphorical bank of opportunity that would extend the riches of freedom and the security of justice to all African-Americans. Today in 2013, she wonders...

JOHNSON: Have we advanced? I'm still waiting for the check.

WANG: The check that Martin Luther King was talking about?

JOHNSON: That's right. I'm still waiting for it.

WANG: Eric Cole of Cincinnati, Ohio, was just 2 years old when Martin Luther King spoke, too young to understand the struggle. There's been progress over the years, but he says he's a realist.

ERIC COLE: I'm not looking for any miracles, but I'm hoping that at least the consciousness will be raised about high unemployment.

WANG: Consciousness was just one of the goals for the national leaders who spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder emphasized that America's struggle for justice will go on.

ERIC HOLDER: Until every eligible American has the chance to exercise his or her right to vote unencumbered by discriminatory or unneeded procedures, rules or practices.

WANG: Other speakers called for the repeal of Stand Your Ground laws, a central focus in the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of teenager Trayvon Martin.

Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of the slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, urged the crowd to apply a different meaning to the name of the controversial law.

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: We can think of standing your ground in the negative, but I ask you today to flip that coin. Stand your ground in terms of fighting for justice and equality.

WANG: Evers-Williams represented an earlier generation of civil rights leaders, a generation that keynote speaker Reverand Al Sharpton said, paved the way to success for younger generations.

REVEREND AL SHARPTON: You got there because some unleaded grandmas who never saw an inside of a college campus put their bodies on the line in Alabama and Mississippi and sponsored you up here.

WANG: And for that, Cory Booker, Newark, New Jersey, mayor and U.S. Senate candidate, said he was grateful.

MAYOR CORY BOOKER: And so now, I call upon my generation to understand that we can never pay back the struggles and the sacrifices of the generation before, but it is our moral obligation to pay it forward.

WANG: A call to action that inspires 38-year-old Kwanzaa Nivens of Washington, D.C.

KWANZAA NIVENS: Just to hear what a lot of people went through 50 years ago to get us to where we are today, it really motivates me to do more.

WANG: Today, doing more meant marching to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and then the Washington Monument in her tennis shoes.

NIVENS: Walking gear.

WANG: Got a lot of walking today, I guess.

NIVENS: Absolutely. And on Wednesday.

WANG: That's when Nivens will be volunteering at another commemoration on the March on Washington's official 50th anniversary. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Washington.

ARMAH: We ran out of Trayvon Martin tags. And if you want to check our post on the other side, they might have some more over there.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, OK. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.