By Donna M. Owens
On Aug. 28, 1963, a sea of humanity more than 250,000 strong converged near the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
On that sweltering summer day, the multiracial crowd hoisted signs, and protest songs filled the air. A parade of speakers — among them activist John Lewis and Daisy Bates, who strategized the integration of Little Rock, Arkansas, schools in 1957 and was the only woman on the program to speak — rallied freedom’s cause. And when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the now-iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, its seismic message about ending racial segregation would reverberate across the nation and around the world.
“No, no, we are not satisfied,” King told the crowd during what would become one of the landmark occasions of 20th-century America, “and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty river.”
Decades later, an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington is scheduled this Saturday with the theme “Not a Commemoration, a Continuation.” While the 1963 demonstration centered around civil rights, jobs and economic opportunities, Saturday’s event will also address a range of issues including threats to democracy, criminal justice reform and voting rights.
“Despite the significant progress we have made, we need to rededicate ourselves to the mission my dad gave his life for,” said Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of the slain civil rights icon and the late Coretta Scott King. “We have to do better. This anniversary gives us the opportunity to not just commemorate his historic calling, but to continue his efforts to make life better for everyone.”
King and his wife, Arndrea Waters King, head the Drum Major Institute — a think tank based on the elder King’s principles — and they are organizing the march with the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, a civil rights organization, in tandem with more than 100 partners.
They’ve enlisted a broad coalition — from civil rights organizations to groups representing Black, Latino, Asian American, Jewish, LGBTQ, women, labor, clergy and other constituencies. The collective goal: forwarding the work necessary to elicit peace, justice and equity.
“We’re still marching because civil rights are under erosion, and the rights of far too many Americans are under relentless attack. Hate crimes are rising, and I’ve presided over so many funerals after police killings,” said Sharpton, who hosts “PoliticsNation” on MSNBC. “There is a concerted effort to undermine our democracy. There are many working to peel away these rights and suppress our history.”
The original march was conceived by labor leader A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkins, then the executive secretary of the NAACP. Bayard Rustin, who worked in tandem with Randolph, was pivotal in executing the march.
It evolved into a collaborative effort involving leading civil rights groups of the era, such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality and the National Urban League.
The National Council of Negro Women was the only Black women’s group to be recognized. In 1963, its president, Dorothy Height, was a key march organizer. However, the organization’s current president, the Rev. Shavon L. Arline-Bradley, said, “She was at the table, yet couldn’t give a speech with the men.”
Arline-Bradley now relishes the opportunity to speak on behalf of NCNW’s 300-plus campus- and community-based “sections” and several dozen national women’s organizations, some members of which are traveling from across the country and will don specially designed purple T-shirts for the event.
“Sixty years later we’re still talking about freedom and poverty,” Arline-Bradley said, ticking off auxiliary issues ranging from equal pay and educational equity to health care access and financial literacy. While acknowledging markers of progress, such as Kamala Harris’ vice presidency and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s ascension to the Supreme Court, “we have to keep pushing to raise the consciousness of the country,” she said.
NCNW is just one of multiple Black-women-led organizations taking part in the march. On Thursday, several of these groups will assemble to honor the Black women of the original march and civil rights movement, while examining how they are tackling current challenges facing Black communities and the nation.
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said more than 1,000 Jewish leaders and supporters are expected to attend and that the organization will host a large Shabbat dinner the night before the march in Washington.
“There’s a shared history,” he said, referring to Jewish allyship with Black Americans during the civil rights movement, and a mutual understanding of “struggle.”
During the march program, Greenblatt plans to deliver an “impassioned plea against hate,” particularly given the rise in antisemitism and hate crimes overall. “It is a complicated moment in history,” he said. “Racism remains a pervasive problem, and addressing it is as pertinent today as it was 60 years ago.”
Svante Myrick, president of People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy group, told NBC News the “anniversary is a moment when we know, without a doubt, that we are on the front lines of the most important fights in our history.”
There’s been a concerted effort to galvanize younger generations to participate in anniversary activities.
National Action Network’s Youth and College Division has been “extremely” engaged, Sharpton said. The NAACP said its youth and college members will join campaign teams on the ground to help register voters.
Chanelle Johnson, 25, who serves on NCNW’s Committee on Young Adult and Collegiate Affairs, is excited. “I’ve been working with other young people to make sure we have a presence and can enhance, engage and extend our impact,” she said.
David Johns, executive director of the Black and LGBTQ advocacy organization, the National Black Justice Coalition, indicated that its participants will include young people concerned about the obstacles they’re encountering at school and beyond amid a wave of politically motivated bills discriminating against LGBTQ people.
Arndrea Waters King said her daughter, Yolanda King, 15, already a veteran of previous demonstrations, will march in the tradition of her family’s legacy.
“The struggles of Black and brown Americans, particularly women and girls, faced 60 years ago are, in many ways, still prevalent today,” Waters King said. “Dr. King called on us all to work to eradicate the triple evils of racism, poverty and violence by standing for peace, justice and equity. As a mother, I’m afraid for my teenage daughter, but I am empowered to use my voice to ensure her future, and the future of all young girls, is as bright as her grandfather dreamed.”