Tens of thousands of people marched to the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial in Washington on Saturday, commemorating the 50th anniversary of his "I Have a Dream" speech and pledging that his vision include equality for gays, Latinos, the poor and the disabled.
The event was a homage to a generation of activists that endured fire hoses, police abuses and indignities to demand equality for African Americans. But there was a strong theme of unfinished business, with speakers lamenting what they see as new attacks on civil rights. "This is not the time for nostalgic commemoration," said Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of the slain civil rights leader.
"Nor is this the time for self-congratulatory celebration. The task is not done. The journey is not complete. We can and we must do more." The gathering on Saturday was the precursor to the actual anniversary of the August 28, 1963 March on Washington, an iconic moment in US history that ushered in the idea of massive, nonviolent demonstrations and helped bring about the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
On the day of the anniversary, President Barack Obama, America's first black president, will speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the same place King stood when he delivered his stirring speech. Eric Holder, the nation's first black attorney general, today thanked those who marched a half century earlier. He said he would not be in office, nor would Obama be president, without them.
"They marched in spite of animosity, oppression and brutality because they believed in the greatness of what this nation could become and despaired of the founding promises not kept," Holder said. Holder said the spirit of the 1963 march now demands equality for gays, Latinos, women, the disabled and others. Keeping with that theme, those in attendance represented a grab-bag of causes advocating gay rights, organised labor and voting rights.
Congressman John Lewis, the only surviving speaker from the 1963 march, railed against a recent Supreme Court decision that effectively erased a key anti-discrimination provision of the Voting Rights Act, whose enactment in 1965 marked a major turning point in the struggle of black Americans for equality.
Lewis, of Georgia, was a leader of a 1965 march, where police beat and gassed marchers who demanded access to voting booths. "I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us," he said. "You cannot stand by. You cannot sit down. You've got to stand up. Speak up, speak out and get in the way."