U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the civil rights movement is “work that remains unfinished,” speaking at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
“The struggle must and will go on,” said Holder, the country’s first black attorney general, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Holder noted that today’s events also come 150 years after President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves during the Civil War.
Holder’s remarks came amid three hours of speeches, including from King’s son, Martin Luther King, III; Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi; Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of civil rights activist Medgar Evers who was murdered the same year as the march; House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California and civil rights leader Julian Bond, chairman emeritus of the NAACP.
Representative John Lewis, who helped organize King’s march half a century ago as a 23-year-old, urged the crowd on Washington’s National Mall to “speak up, speak out” and continue the fight for civil rights. “Make some noise,” the Georgia Democrat said.
“Fifty years ago I stood right here in this spot,” Lewis said. “Now we have another fight,” he said, referring to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling on June 25 on the 1965 Voting Rights Act that invalidated the formula for determining which states need federal approval before changing election rules.
The Reverend Al Sharpton, one of the organizers of the rally, urged lawmakers to repair the Voting Rights Act.
Unemployment was another focus of the rally.
“We need jobs,” Sharpton said. “Folks want to work, and earn for their family.”
Also present for the anniversary events were the families of Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, young blacks whose killings 57 years apart galvanized civil rights communities.
Following the speeches, attendees carrying signs with slogans including “Dr. King’s Legacy: Jobs Not War” and “Justice for Trayvon” marched from the Lincoln Memorial down Independence Avenue, past the King Memorial on the edge of the Tidal Basin, before reaching the Washington Monument.
Events commemorating the 1963 March will culminate in a speech Aug. 28, the day of King’s speech, by President Barack Obama. The first black U.S. president has tried to balance his brand of post-racial politics with his personal experiences of growing up black in America and calls from the African-American community to focus more on racial inequality.
Unemployment among African-Americans is at 13.4 percent, while the national unemployment rate is 7.4 percent.
The state of the labor market is a primary reason that Rosa Vaughan came from Centreville, Virginia, to the march. Vaughan, who was 10 years old at the time of King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial, has been working part-time at a grocery store since her job at USA Today was eliminated and is seeking a full-time position.
“I have to work this evening but I wanted to be here,” said Vaughan, who said she was particularly “uplifted” by the diversity of nationalities present on the Mall. “This does my heart good.”
“We still have amazingly high unemployment, we have incredible economic inequality,” said Lynne Turner, 50, from New Jersey, reflecting on the present compared with 50 years ago.
William Donovan, 26, said he wanted to be a part of the day’s events because he remembers hearing about family members’ experiences during the civil rights movement.
“I’ve been called the n-word before,” said Donovan, recalling an incident when a truck driver shouted the epithet at him and a friend. “There’s nothing you can say that has the same impact.”
Donovan is the only one of three siblings who graduated from college, and is pursuing his master’s in business administration at Howard University in Washington. He said he tries to show his nephew and three nieces that they can emulate his success.
“Even with a black president, they still think this is so far away,” Donovan, originally from Syracuse, N.Y., said.
Today’s march is also meant to incorporate other minority groups and advocate for policy changes, Wade Henderson, president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said on a conference call earlier this week.
The groups are calling for immigration policy changes, restoration of voting rights and job creation, and to recognize the disabled and the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities that weren’t invited to participate in King’s 1963 events, Henderson said.