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Fresh voices at 50th anniversary of March on D.C.

Historic rally reinvigorated by young activists

Tens of thousands gathered Saturday at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. President Obama will speak Wednesday on the historic civil rights event.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Tens of thousands gathered Saturday at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. President Obama will speak Wednesday on the historic civil rights event.

WASHINGTON — Mary-Pat Hector of Atlanta was operating much like a 1960s civil rights activist as she laid plans for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. She was constantly on the phone as she confirmed event details, tweaked the draft of the speech she gave at Saturday’s rally at the Lincoln Memorial, and prepared for a presentation.

Mary-Pat is 15 years old.

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Just as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery Bus Boycott at age 26, and Representative John Lewis helped to lead freedom rides at 23, young Americans like Mary-Pat are not letting age get in the way as they seek more than a contributing role in the push for social reform.

Young people were eager to influence this year’s March on Washington, said Jessica Brown, national coordinator for the Black Youth Vote coalition, which organized several youth events around Saturday’s march to the Lincoln Memorial.

‘‘Of course you have the seasoned people who are there, and they are always rightfully going to have their position,’’ Brown said. ‘‘But you’re starting to see the pickup of the youth saying, ‘This is our time, this is our moment, this is the opportunity we have to show the world and the nation, that we’re here and we’re ready to work and organize to get things done.’ ’’

In 1963, those ‘‘seasoned people’’ were A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, who generated the idea of a Washington march to appeal for jobs and justice, and ultimately attracted 250,000 people.

Today, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III, who were 8 and 5 years old, respectively, in 1963, are the veterans who brought thousands to the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday.

The King Center also has organized a ceremony on Wednesday, the actual march anniversary, when President Obama will speak.

Friday night, students and young adults gathered at Howard University in Washington for a mass meeting and rally ahead of Saturday’s march, patterned after the student rallies that were held before major demonstrations during the civil rights movement.

Anthony Miller, president of the Howard University Student Association, said students recognize the historical significance, and some are using this moment to express their continuing anger over the shooting death of black Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

‘‘They want to be able to do something positive and something that will uplift this situation and really bring it to light,’’ Miller said. Students want ‘‘to effect a positive change and push this country in the right direction,’’ he said, ‘‘And I think this is an excellent opportunity.’’

Saturday’s march included several youth speakers, the youngest, Asean Johnson of Chicago, just 9 years old.

Unlike the narrow focus on jobs and freedom in 1963, this year’s march seeks to address an array of issues. Sharpton expanded the march’s original goals, combating high unemployment among blacks and youth, to include a call for action after the Supreme Court invalidated parts of the Voting Rights Act, and to protest ‘‘stand your ground’’ laws and stop-and-frisk police tactics.

‘‘We’re looking at the issue that went on in Florida, we’re looking at what’s going on with the Voting Rights Act, so youth are really upset, and they’re deciding maybe this is a good point to collectively come together, continuously build on our network, and take it back to our community to continue working,’’ Brown said.

Sasha Costanza-Chock, an assistant professor of civic media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said young people’s willingness to simultaneously address ‘‘multiple dynamics of oppression’’ shows how youth activism has matured.

‘‘You have a lot more young people now talking about . . . the ways that different structures of race, class, gender, and sexuality cannot be fought only one at a time. They have to be looked at together and struggled for together,’’ Costanza-Chock said.

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