They came to celebrate a day in history when people proclaimed that their struggle for equality would not go unnoticed. But as thousands gathered on the National Mall Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the mood was more pensive than celebratory — marked by a feeling that King’s dream, for all the country’s progress, is yet to be realized.
For many like Ruby Reese Moone, it was full circle after coming to Washington on Aug. 28, 50 years earlier. In 1963, she and her husband were working in Georgia to register people for the march, and decided to move to Washington two weeks before the big day.
“We came up to D.C., got jobs, and decided to stay,” Moone said.
Despite all the progress on racial equality since then, Moone said, the spirit of Wednesday’s march was much like what she remembers of 1963.
“It’s almost like we’re here for the same purpose,” Moone said. “People are still talking about the need for jobs, the need for freedom and justice.
Though the threat of Jim Crow and blatant legal discrimination are now distant memories, a continuing struggle for economic equality was a common theme among the day’s speakers, who included members of Congress and union and civil rights leaders.
“We come today not only to celebrate,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, whose speech roused the largely quiet crowd. “We come today as the children of Dr. King to say we’re going to fight Jim Crow’s children.”
With that same idea in mind, Moone brought her grandchildren to the march hoping they’d be moved to push for justice throughout their lives.
“I hope today will have the same impact on them that it had on me in ’63,” said Moone, who served on the national board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King helped found. “I hope they grow up fighting and pushing for civil rights and justice.”
Tina Long, 50, brought her adult two children, Ki’Eran and Tre’shon McKinnie.
“It’s important for people to remember what happened here 50 years ago,” Long said. “We get an opportunity to relive that today.”
Ki’Eran, 23, said the day serves as a good reminder to young people of the nation’s struggles.
“I think we’ve gotten comfortable and don’t always realize what our ancestors went through,” McKinnie said. “It’s like we’re living a fairy tale.”
Benton Thompson IV, a 13-year-old from Atlanta who participated in the week’s Youth Summit, which brought together children from across the country to learn about young people’s involvement in the civil rights movement, came Wednesday with his father.
“I’m here to learn,” Thompson said. “Young people should know what’s going on — when we speak, adults listen.”
Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis, who in 1963 was the youngest to speak at the march, sought to remind people how far the country has come.
“Sometimes I hear people saying ‘nothing has changed,’” Lewis said in his remarks. “But for someone who grew up the way I grew up in the cotton fields of Alabama to now be serving in the United States Congress, makes me want to tell them ‘come and walk in my shoes.’”
Lewis spoke of his days as an activist with the Freedom Riders, recalling that he and others were beaten and jailed in their attempts to desegregate the south. The crowd was nearly silent during Lewis’ speech, as his voice bounced off the walls of the Lincoln Memorial.
But for Martin McAdoo, 69, the real star of the day’s events was President Barack Obama. McAdoo and his wife traveled up from Greensboro, N.C., on Tuesday night and hit the mall at 8:30 a.m., Wednesday so they could hear the president, who didn’t take the stage until 3 o’clock.
McAdoo attended the march in 1963 but said he didn’t realize the historical impact of the event until much later. He hoped Wednesday’s event would make a more immediate impression.
“Sometimes things fall through the cracks when people don’t stay vigilant,” McAdoo said. “Hopefully this will renew everyone’s belief in the importance of what’s going on.”