Today marks the 50th anniversary of the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took Mahalia Jackson’s sage advice and abandoned his prepared remarks for the soaring oratory that claimed the moral high ground for the Civil Rights movement.
Today’s event, on a weekday, is easy for today’s main speakers — President Obama and Bill Clinton — to make, but for regular working folks, weekends will have to do.
Last weekend’s commemoration of the March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom and the anniversary of King’s stirring “I have a dream” speech felt more than anything like a big family reunion.
Tens of thousands of people converged on the city from across the country, many walking in groups and wearing matching T-shirts proclaiming their branch of the family.
This family was linked not by genes, but by the belief that great strides have been made toward creating a color-blind America, much more needs to be done.
While Saturday’s big speakers were holding forth on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Ernest Williams of Brewerytown was among those paying tribute at the nearby King memorial. Williams was easy to spot, wearing an Eagles jersey, No. 20, with Dawkins’ name on the back.
Williams, who is African-American, retired after working for AT & T for 37 years, and he credited King with opening doors for him and others of his race.
“He was the reason we got jobs,” Williams said. “And because of him my kids are college graduates.
“That’s why I’m here.”
Williams was in the Marines in 1963 and couldn’t attend the original march. When he left the service that year “college was out of the picture for us” but because of the Civil Rights movement and the legislation that followed, good jobs opened up.
Though he’s glad that more doors are open today, he echoed what many others at the march said. “We still have a lot more [ways] to go.
“It seems like things are cut off again for young black boys,” he said, noting, especially, the lack of good manufacturing jobs.
By noon, the crowd at the monument was so thick that people stood in line just to walk down the wide path to the spot where King’s huge form emerges from the stone.
Also stopping by the memorial were about a half dozen Philadelphia streets department workers, members of AFSCME District Council 33. Four busloads of DC 33 members had left 30th and Walnut to attend the anniversary march.
Why did they come?
“To relive the moment,” said Frances Click, 38, who lives near Temple University.
Another DC 33 member, Regina Hughes noted she wasn’t alive when King delivered his speech.
“I didn’t have the opportunity to do it years ago,” said Hughes, 46. “I have the opportunity now.”
A contingent from Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington had made a pilgrimage to the King monument, too. There, Jannie Campbell, 75, talked about listening to King speak that day — Aug. 28, 1963.
“It was a day just like this,” she said. “The weather was beautiful and hot. People were friendly.”
What King did, she said, “made a big difference for our race, for our children, and for all Americans.”
Others at the march said the Supreme Court’s recent decision to relax parts of the Voting Rights Act and state actions to limit voting were proof that the train of justice was moving backward down the track.
Judging by the picket signs, the causes that prompted the huge turnout ran the gamut from the UAW, to immigration reform, to gay rights, to pushing for more schools and fewer prisons.
Though King’s memory hovered over everything, it was Trayvon Martin’s photo that was ubiquitous. Street vendors sold buttons and T-shirts with images of his face. The “MillionHoodies Movement for Justice” marched, and numerous placards protested his killing.
“Where is justice for Trayvon Martin?” read one sign.
His mother spoke briefly at the Lincoln Memorial and walked at the front of the march. His father, wearing a black cap with Trayvon’s name, walked only steps behind.
In the procession toward the Washington Monument, people had to step carefully along the pavement because the police horses that led the way had left their calling cards.
At first, the marchers were quiet, and then they broke into a call-and-response chant of “No justice, no peace.” But that lasted only briefly. The enduring sound, the one that stirred the soul and connected the dots to 1963, emerged from the ranks and rose to a swell.
“We shall overcome,” the marchers sang — reverently, defiantly, confidently — over and over again.
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