Walter Carter said he had perched himself on a tree halfway down the Washington Monument’s reflecting pool to hear Dr Martin Luther King Jr address on 28 August 1963.
Fifty-seven years later, holding a tall sign reading “get your knee off our necks” and wearing a black face covering with the words “I Will Vote” scrawled in white, he leaned against a barricade steps away from the Lincoln Monument, more than 800 yards closer, to listen to Dr King’s son.
“What’s so interesting, and I’d say sad, are the core issues being discussed today are the same issues discussed then,” he told The Independent. “The words are different, but the issues remain the same.”
At times joyous and sombre, with the catharsis of a gospel service and street parade, the 2020 March on Washington and nearly six-hour-long rally in a heavy August heat followed a summer of protests demanding justice in the wake of police killings of black Americans.
The Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis galvanised an international campaign to not only build on a Black Lives Matter movement against racial injustice but also caught fire to a long-kindled effort to dismantle racist institutions.
A 2020 March on Washington – convened by Martin Luther King III and black activist Al Sharpton through his National Action Network – seized on the protests’ energy to rally around legislative efforts to hold police accountable and combat voter suppression, weeks ahead of a crucial November election to oust Donald Trump from the White House.
The 57th anniversary of the march – where Rev King delivered his “I have a dream” remarks – is the first following the death of congressman John Lewis, among the “Big Six” Civil Rights-era leaders and the youngest speaker, at 23-year-old, at the 1963 event.
But it was the names of the victims of police killings and racist violence, echoed in waves from the steps of the memorial to the end of the reflecting pool at the base of the Washington Monument, that rocketed the event into its visceral present.
T-shirt vendors carted around memorabilia commemorating marches through the decades, worn by men and women who lived through them, while refrains from 2020 protests and grim reminders of recent violence reminded the crowd that the anniversary march is not an ending.
The march followed a week of protests after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where an officer fired seven shots into the 29-year-old black man’s back, leaving him paralysed from the waist down. A white 17-year-old from Illinois has been accused of killing two protesters and injuring another.
It also served as an informal response to a week of Republican National Convention remarks dismissing nationwide protests and demands that have united thousands of people from across the US to march together at the capital.
Milwaukee activist Frank Nitty started his 750-mile walk from Wisconsin to Washington DC earlier this month, picking up supporters along the way. By the time he reached the Lincoln Memorial after 7.30am on Friday, he was surrounded by dozens of people.
A few hours later, he was behind the podium addressing thousands of people surrounding the memorial steps and reflecting pool.
“We need to get organised together as a nation as activists so we can call on each other when we need help,” he said. “This is not a negotiation. This is a demand. ... We just marched 750 miles. We’re not going to stop until we see change.”
Porsche Taylor, founder of motorcycle group Black Girls Ride, travelled 3,000 miles with 100 women from Long Beach, California to the nation’s capital.
“When a call to march was issued we knew it was time to mount up,” she told the crowd. “We ride unapologetically for black lives ... In November, [we’ll] lead the ride to the polls.”
The realities of a pandemic that has killed 180,000 Americans also planted the event in the present.
By 10am, a line for temperature checks and wristbands to enter the area had wrapped around the entrance to the park.
“I’m here to live out this mantra,” said Rex Ikwueme, lifting his silver face shield and pointing to his sign: “White supremacy will end on my watch.”
“Everything that’s going on in the world right now is crazy, and I feel like people need to take a little time out of their life and dedicate some time for this,”he said. “We’re going to need justice for all the things that happened to black people in America, and we need it now.”
“All the names on this list need justice,” said Virginia resident Isis Wallace, holding a sign listing the names of dozens of black victims of police violence. “If there is no justice for anyone, then there is no peace.”
Mr Sharpton would close his remarks that afternoon leading a chant with those same words, shaking the air through massive speakers placed throughout the park: “No justice, no peace.”
Melissa Monroe travelled from Chicago to see her two teenage daughters at the event.
“Our nation has taken such a turn, I don’t even recognise who we are anymore,” she said. “It’s important for me and everyone out here, just through our own presence, make sure America knows we’re better than what’s happening now.”
“It was really important for us to come out as a family, especially a black family,” said her daughter Max. “It’s important to make your voice known and heard and not just take racism and all the other inequalities we experience lightly, and make sure you are fighting back. Once my sister and I are older it’s important to tell our kids, our grandkids, that we were fighting for them as well.”
The event saw a convergence of several rallies, protests, groups of union leaders, faith organisations and other informally organised acts of civil disobedience not necessarily under the same banner of Mr Sharpton’s broadly focussed and electorally driven event.
Leading up to a brief march to the Martin Luther King monument, the park erupted from a solemn start with an impromptu brass band leading hundreds of people on one side of the park, while Martin Luther King Jr III and several elected officials carried a banner to take the lead.
A long-running effort to demand prosecutors open cases of police violence broke from the rally to protest in front of the Department of Justice.
The main event focused on the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and the restoration of the Voting Rights Act to honour the later congressman John Lewis, whose life’s work sought to enfranchise every American.
Organisers with Every Case Matters and Mass Action Against Police Brutality – representing dozens of families who have lost loved ones to police violence – brought them to the steps of federal prosecutors. Hundreds of people marched to the steps of the Department of Justice to hear from victims’ families and demand cases involving police brutality be reopened.
“There’s a common misconception that if no charges are filed in the case that’s the end of the story,” organiser Brock Satter told The Independent. “But we don’t feel that this thing should be left to the whims of a prosecutor – it needs to go to a trial.”
Much-publicised efforts to “defund the police” are not the central demands, he said, but part of a broader campaign to hold systems of power accountable for criminal acts against the communities they serve.
“Our fight is not just against the police,” he said. “We’re not just dealing with killer cops. We’re dealing with corrupt prosecutors, judges, elected officials -- they all need to be held accountable. That’s why justice is at the centre of it. ... It’s a pretty simple demand. It’s pretty elementary. The question is, Why isn’t it happening?”
Keyona Osborne, an organiser with faith-based group It Ends Now Charlotte, was among 30 members who travelled to the capital from North Carolina.
Beginning on 31 May, It Ends Now grew from a Facebook post that drew thousands of people to a protest into a nonprofit organisation focussed around racial justice and the teachings of Jesus Christ.
“This anniversary means so much,” she said. “Even just walking towards the Lincoln Memorial it felt like 57 years ago. I felt like I heard Martin Luther King’s voice. I felt like I was a part of the crowd. And I do feel the theme of what we’re feeling now is similar. I’m saddened that 57 years later we still have to do something like this, but I’m excited to be part of history and part of the fact that this will actually end with this generation.”
Walter Carter, who attended the 1963 march, said young people were pivotal to the growth of the movement.
“There’s a lot to be done to make the necessary social change, political change, economic change – but what is good of it is the people to do it are the people involved now,” he said. “The young people involved now need to stay involved. They need to keep on doing what they’re doing. That’s gonna make a big difference towards preventing another this in another 57 years.”
Before he carried his sign to the front flank of the march to the King monument, after spending hours under the blistering sun, he said he felt good and inspired for whatever came next.
“I feel young,” he said. “I feel capable of getting things done, but most of all, though, I feel good that in 1963, I was here, and I’m here again.”
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