People participating in the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington turn onto Pennsylvania Avenue on Aug. 28 in Washington, D.C. H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Fifty years to the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, thousands returned to the spot on a rainy Wednesday to commemorate the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The march started about 9:10 a.m. and stretched roughly three city blocks. Banners and T-shirts and chants focused on the Trayvon Martin verdict and on protecting the Voting Rights Act. Other banners focused on gun control, mass incarceration of African-Americans and equal access to education. Marchers of all ages and races walked the route together, some singing songs such as "We Shall Not Be Moved."
Wednesday's commemoration culminates a week's worth of events marking the 1963 march, which was organized by civil rights and labor groups. Wednesday's event will feature speeches by President Obama and former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
The gathering, titled "Let Freedom Ring," is organized by the 50th Anniversary Coalition for Jobs, Justice and Freedom, a group represented by the NAACP, the National Urban League, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other civil rights organizations.
Nearly five hours of speeches and performances are expected to mark the occasion, including appearances by everyone from Oprah Winfrey and longtime King associate Andrew Young to Caroline Kennedy, just named by Obama to be ambassador to Japan.
Among the speakers: U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the only surviving speaker from the 1963 march.
In an early-morning speech at the Capitol on Wednesday, Lewis recalled that on Aug. 28, 1963, he and other march organizers met with congressional lawmakers on Capitol Hill, then planned to lead marchers to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. "When we stepped out into the street, we saw hundreds of thousands of people pouring out of Union Station," Lewis said. "We were supposed to be leading them, but they were already marching. It was like, 'There go my people - let me catch up with them.' "
Obama is well-versed in talking about race but does so rarely. As the nation's first African-American president, he has used his own improbable story as evidence of how far the nation has come. Even before he was elected president, then-Sen. Obama in 2007 told worshipers at the historic Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, Ala., "I'm here because somebody marched. I'm here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants."
He referred to King and his contemporaries as "the Moses generation," but said "we've got to remember, now, that Joshua still had a job to do."
In office, he has only occasionally talked about race. Perhaps most significantly, in 2012 he commented on the Trayvon Martin shooting in Sanford, Fla., saying of the young African-American who died, "You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. All of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves."
After a jury acquitted George Zimmerman in July of the shooting, Obama said, "Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. ... When you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there's a lot of pain. It's important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and history that doesn't go away."
King hadn't originally planned the "I have a dream" rhetoric that gave the occasion its historic significance. In the moment, Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian Taylor Branch recently told USA Weekend, King improvised the passage in a speech that had begun more cynically, with the memorable line, "America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.' "
Branch said King then "balked" at his prepared conclusion, improvising the ending that galvanized the civil rights moment during one of its most pivotal years. Branch said Obama "should speak more from his tiptoe stance about race in our national journey."
International commemorations will be held at London's Trafalgar Square, as well as in Japan, Switzerland, Nepal and Liberia. London Mayor Boris Johnson has said King's speech resonates around the world and continues to inspire people as one of history's great pieces of oratory.
As King was ending his speech in 1963, he quoted from the patriotic song My Country 'Tis of Thee and urged his audience to "let freedom ring."
"When we allow freedom to ring - when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last, great God almighty, we are free at last,'" King said.
The civil rights leader was assassinated five years later.