Thousands gather for March on Washington’s 60th anniversary

Attendees listen to speakers during the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 26, 2023. — Jack Jenkins/RNS

Thousands of people assembled near the Lincoln Memorial on August 26 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, paying tribute to the historic civil rights gathering led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. while voicing new frustrations with political extremism that threatens racial progress.

In his address to a sprawling crowd, the Rev. Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, framed the country’s current political contest as a battle between “dreamers” and “schemers.”

“Sixty years ago, Martin Luther King talked about a dream,” said Sharpton, referring to King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered from the same spot in 1963, in which the slain civil rights leader envisioned a future of racial harmony. “Sixty years later, we’re the dreamers — the problem is we’re facing the schemers.”

Sharpton explained “dreamers” were those in the crowd and elsewhere who resist various forms of hatred and advocate for causes such as voting rights, women’s rights, abortion rights and LGBTQ equality. The “schemers,” meanwhile, are their political opponents — including former President Donald Trump, who surrendered at an Atlanta, Georgia, jail this week on charges of trying to overturn the 2020 election results in the state.

“The dreamers are in Washington, D.C.,” Sharpton said. “The schemers are being booked in Atlanta, Georgia, in the Fulton County Jail.”

As if to underscore the nation’s continuing need for racial justice, a white gunman fatally shot three people at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville, Florida, Saturday, in what the sheriff there described as a “racially motivated” killing.

As in 1963, a dizzying array of activists, faith leaders, musicians, actors, labor advocates and lawmakers delivered their own impassioned speeches, standing for a broad coalition addressing racial injustice. It is credited with helping to spur passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Like Sharpton, the Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, made reference to Trump’s most recent indictment, broadening the term to criticize churches that don’t do enough to help those in need.

He called for an “indictment on churches that are silent — they speak in tongues, but don’t speak truth to power” and “an indictment of those who have multi-million dollar buildings, but turn a blind eye to those who do not have a standard of living.”

Rabbi Heather Miller, a Black woman and founder of The Multitudes, recalled the different faiths represented at the 1963 march and offered her presence as evidence of solidarity across different identities and faith traditions.

Rep. Nikema Williams, co-chair of the Congressional Caucuas on Black-Jewish relations, summoned the image of the late Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon and a co-founder of the caucus who spoke at the first march.

“To this day, the interconnectedness remains strong, y’all,” Williams said. “As we face rising hate speech and antisemitism, attacks on our basic freedom and attempts to erase our history, we know that when we fight together victory is ours.”

Members of King’s family spoke, as did figures such as House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York; Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign; David Hogg, a mass shooting survivor and gun control advocate who co-founded the group March for Our Lives; and Sacha Baron Cohen, a British comedian and actor, among many others.

The blitz of speeches and causes did little to faze a woman who stood nearby under a shady tree, nodding thoughtfully throughout the day as she listened to people speak. Wearing the T-shirt of her New York church and offering only her first name, Mary, she told RNS that while she hadn’t made it to the March on Washington in 1963, she managed to show up for the original Poor People’s Campaign a few years later in 1968 — an effort initiated by King just before he was assassinated that same year.

The experience, she said, helped catapult her into a lifetime of grassroots activism.

“I’m concerned about democracy in this country — very concerned,” she said. “And I’m concerned about this upcoming election. We’re at a pivotal point in this country.”

Even so, she grinned as she looked out at a group of young people huddled nearby, many of whom were around the same age she was when she attended a rally here decades before.

“In spite of how far we have to go, we have come so far,” she said.

As the event concluded, the crowd then turned and marched to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!