by Gerald Lenoir
On Aug. 28, 1963, at 15 years old, I watched the television screen intently as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom unfolded. With over 250,000 people assembled, it was, at that time, the largest demonstration in the history of the country. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired the nation with his “I Have a Dream” speech and his vision of racial equality.
The march was exciting and motivational for me and many young Black people across the country. It fueled the Black freedom movement and was a major factor in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Now I’m 65 years old and on Saturday, I was in Washington, D.C., marching along with over 100,000 people to mark the 50th anniversary of 1963 mobilization, which was a high watermark in the struggle for racial and economic justice and human rights in the United States. It is incredible that 50 years later, we are still in the streets demanding our human rights.
Though last Saturday’s march was not as large as the original march, it has the potential to reignite a social movement with an unfinished agenda. The turnout was large and diverse. Elderly people came marching with canes and crutches and rolling in their wheel chairs. Young people came in full force with youthful exuberance. Mothers and fathers came with preschoolers and preteens in tow.
I met students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, trade unionists, men and women from Black fraternities and sororities, immigrant rights activists, women’s rights activists and activists from faith communities. A big majority of the people were Black, but whites, Native Americans, Latinos, Asians and Arabs were visible. Despite the fact that the march and rally were a bit disorganized, there was a palpable enthusiasm in the crowd, a spirit of conviction and resistance. “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” reverberated through the crowd over and over again.
It is incredible that 50 years later, we are still in the streets demanding our human rights.
Speaker after speaker outlined for us the pressing issues of the day – the attacks on our voting rights, racial profiling, gun violence, job discrimination, immigrant rights, LGBT equality, education justice and others. The names of African American martyrs and victims of injustice were invoked – Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Trayvon Martin.
Congressman John Lewis, the last living speaker from the original March on Washington, gave what I thought was the most stirring speech. He talked about the continuing fight for justice. “Almost 50 years ago, I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Alabama, for the right to vote,” Lewis said. “I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us! The vote is precious.”
He also voiced his support for a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. He ended his speech to cheers and applause, saying: “I’m not tired, I’m not weary, I’m not prepared to sit down and give up! I am ready to fight and continue to fight, and you must fight!”
The murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman was one of motivating factors for such a large turnout to the march, especially among the young participants. Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, said to the crowd, “He’s not just my son; he’s all of our son and we have to fight for our children.” Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, exhorted us to turn Stand Your Ground into a positive. “Stand your ground for justice and equality,” she urged. And the crowd roared its approval.
It felt good to me to be among so many like-minded people struggling for the same causes. However, I didn’t hear from the stage any program of national action, any urgent national campaigns for us to plug into. I didn’t hear an explicit organizing agenda. The speakers spoke in general terms and not in specifics. The myriad of issues presented was a strength but I was left wondering about how we can focus such a broad and diverse movement for justice and equality.
Speaker after speaker outlined for us the pressing issues of the day – the attacks on our voting rights, racial profiling, gun violence, job discrimination, immigrant rights, LGBT equality, education justice and others.
Like the 1963 march, the 2013 march has the potential to become a watershed moment in history. But to make it so, we must do the hard work of building genuine relationships and alliances across the lines of color, nationality, gender and sexual orientation. We must build a grassroots agenda and an organizing strategy. We must leverage the people power represented at the march to effect public opinion and national policies.
I remember back to 2006 when across the country, millions upon millions marched for immigrant justice in the largest demonstrations in the history of this nation. If the power of the African American civil rights movement can be joined with the power of the immigrant justice movement, we could bring into being a new and potent movement against racism and for human rights for all of us.
That is the challenge of the 21st century. I left the March on Washington with a new resolve to help bring that new movement to fruition.
Gerald Lenoir is the executive director of the Oakland-based Black Alliance for Just Immigration. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Rep. John Lewis’ Speech at the 1963 March on Washington from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.