WASHINGTON — Half a century after the emotional apex of the civil rights movement, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, tens of thousands of people retraced his footsteps Saturday, and his successors in the civil rights movement spoke where he did, in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
The anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington was less a commemoration, speakers proclaimed, than an effort to inject fresh energy into issues of economics and justice that, despite obvious progress in overcoming racial bias, still leave stubborn gaps between white and black Americans.
The speeches that carried over the Reflecting Pool, which 50 years ago prodded Congress to pass landmark laws, took aim at current efforts to restrict voting access, racial profiling by law enforcement, and economic inequality.
Addressing generations too young to remember the civil rights movement but who benefited from it, the Rev. Al Sharpton, an organizer of Saturday’s event, said: “Don’t act like whatever you achieved you achieved because you were that smart. You got there because some unlettered grandmas who never saw the inside of a college campus put their bodies on the line in Alabama and Mississippi and sponsored you up here.”
A lineup of civil rights heroes, current leaders of the movement, labor leaders, and Democratic officials addressed a vast crowd that stretched east from the Lincoln Memorial to the knoll of the Washington Monument — well out of range of the loudspeakers.
Organizers expected 100,000 people on Saturday, fewer than half the number who came in 1963 when efforts to dismantle segregation, often accompanied by shocking violence, seized the national attention.
Speakers included Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who on Thursday sued Texas over a strict voter ID law; Representative John Lewis of Georgia, an organizer of the 1963 march; and Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager shot and killed last year.
“I gave blood on the 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.”
He and many others said the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was under attack after the court struck down the heart of the law in June, opening the way for states such as North Carolina and Texas to enforce new restrictions on voting access.
Holder, getting the first roar of welcome of the day from the crowd, said that King’s struggle must continue “until every eligible American has the chance to exercise his or her right to vote unencumbered by discrimination or unneeded procedurals, rules, or practices.”
The Martin case, which led to the acquittal in July of a neighborhood watch volunteer in Martin’s killing, was also a major touchstone of the day.
“We march because Trayvon Martin has joined Emmett Till in the pantheon of young black martyrs,” said Julian Bond, the social activist, who attended the 1963 march.
Mazi Oyo, a 27-year-old marcher from Brooklyn, said the verdict prompted him for the first time to consider how he is perceived as a black man. Even in his diverse and upper-middle-class Park Slope neighborhood, he said, “When I go to the store late at night, I have to dress a certain way.”
Etiah Brookins, 36, a marcher from Queens, said she hoped young people drawn to the march because of Martin’s death would discover a new connection to the history of the civil rights movement.
Benjamin T. Jealous, president of the NAACP, linked the passage in New York City of limits to stop-and-frisk police tactics — over the objections of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — to the Martin case.
Sharpton, who as chief organizer gave himself the role of keynote speaker, seized the opportunity to raise the rhetorical temperature, noting that in past decades when blacks voted for Presidents Kennedy, Nixon, Bush, and others, their IDs at the polls had been sufficient. “Why when we get to Obama do we need some special ID?” he said to a roar of approval.
“When we leave here we’re going to go to those states,” including North Carolina and Texas, he said. “And when they ask us for our voter ID, take out a photo of Medgar Evers.”
President Obama, who is scheduled to observe the anniversary Wednesday at the Lincoln Memorial, and who was mentioned by many speakers as the fulfillment of King’s dream, was perhaps conspicuous by his absence. Through much of his presidency, Obama has been reluctant to frame issues in specifically racial terms, sometimes to the frustration of civil rights leaders.
While King spoke in August 1963 of his dream that one day his children would be judged by the content of their character, not their color, Obama has turned the focus away from racial tension and discrimination — his election being an obvious refutation — to issues of unequal economic opportunity.
Lately he has taken to reminding people that the 1963 demonstration, officially the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” was as much about fighting for economic equality.