After a week of protests and outrage over the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, thousands gathered in Washington on Friday to commemorate the historic 1963 March on the U.S. capital.
Civil rights leaders and advocates convened near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his historic “I Have A Dream” address, a vision of racial equality that remains elusive for millions of Americans.
The event, organized by Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network under the title Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks in recognition of George Floyd, a Black man who died May 25 after a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minn., held a knee to his neck for nearly eight minutes. Floyd’s death sparked weeks of sustained protests and unrest across the country.
“I want to give space for Black people in the crowd to say they are not OK,” said Jumaane Williams, New York City’s public advocate, who addressed march attendees shortly after the program began.
The gathering came on the heels of yet another shooting by a white police officer of a Black man — this time, 29-year-old Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., last Sunday — sparking days of protests and violence that left two dead.
Early on, the march was shaping up to be the largest political gathering in Washington since the coronavirus pandemic began.
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‘Rocky but righteous’
The crowds gathered to hear the keynote addresses from Martin Luther King III, a son of the late civil rights icon, and Sharpton.
Both speeches aimed to stress the urgency for federal policing reforms, decried racial violence and demanded voting rights protections ahead of the Nov. 3 general election.
“We’re taking a step forward on America’s rocky but righteous journey toward justice,” King said.
To underscore that urgency, Sharpton had assembled the families of an ever-expanding roll call of individuals who have been the victims of what many see as racially motivated violence: Blake, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, among others.
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On Friday morning, lines of participants stretched for several blocks as organizers insisted on taking temperatures as part of coronavirus protocols. Organizers reminded attendees to practise physical distancing and wear masks throughout the program.
Many attendees showed up wearing T-shirts bearing the image and words of the late civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis who, until his death last month, was the last living speaker at the original March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The march went on to become one of the most famous political rallies in U.S. history and one of the largest gatherings at the nation’s capital, with over 200,000 people advocating for social change.
Following the commemorative rally, participants will march to the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in West Potomac Park, next to the National Mall, and then disperse.
‘I came here to demand change’
Activist Frank Nitty, who said he walked 750 miles for 24 days from Milwaukee, Wis., to be in Friday’s march, spoke to the audience about persistence in the fight for justice.
“Are y’all tired? Because I’m tired,” Nitty said. “They think this is a negotiation, but I came here to demand change. My grandson ain’t gonna march for the same things that my granddaddy marched for. This is a revolution.”
In June, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act, which would ban police use of stranglehold manoeuvres and end qualified immunity for officers, among other reforms.
In July, following Lewis’ death, Democratic senators reintroduced legislation that would restore a provision of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 cut by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. The law previously required states with a history of voter suppression to seek federal clearance before changing voting regulations.
Both measures are awaiting action in the Republican-controlled Senate.