Alistair Barr and Greg Toppo , USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - Fifty years to the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his spellbinding "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a large crowd braved rain on the National Mall and heard civil rights, labor and political leaders and entertainers urge them - sometimes defiantly - to keep fighting for justice and equal rights.
This time around, jobs and voting rights for African Americans shared the spotlight with fights for clean water and air, a living wage, civil rights for gays and lesbians, and an end to homelessness and stop-and-frisk policing policies. Former President Jimmy Carter even invoked the long-fought struggle for congressional voting rights for D.C. residents. Former President Clinton added, "A great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon." President Obama was to deliver the final speech
Al Sharpton told the crowd the Jim Crow "had a son named James Crow Jr., Esq. He writes voting suppression laws," and National Urban League President Marc Morial said, "It is time, America, to wake up. Fifty years ago that sleeping giant was awakened, but somewhere along the way we've dozed. We've been quelled by the lullaby of false prosperity and the mirage of economic equality. We fell into a slumber. Somewhere along the way, white sheets were traded for button-down white shirts. Attack dogs and water hoses were traded for Tasers and widespread implementation of stop-and-frisk policies."
Through on-and-off rain showers that were occasionally heavy, marchers making their way to the National Mall waved banners that read, "The new Jim Crow must go" and "50 years later still fighting to vote," sang traditional protest songs and chanted, "Education is our right - education is our fight!" At times, during the heavy rain, a nearly unbroken sea of umbrellas stretched across the Mall.
The crowd appeared much smaller than the estimated 200,000 who jammed the mall in 1963 at a tumultuous time in U.S. history, an era of separate bathrooms and drinking fountains for whites and blacks, of police using firehoses and German shepherds to terrorize civil rights marchers in the South, and murders of activists and little girls in church.
The 1963 march focused on what Andrew Young, a close associate of King's and later Atlanta mayor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called "the triple evils of racism, war and poverty." Young said King's speech focused mostly on poverty. "He said that the Constitution was a promissory note to which all of us would fall heir, but that when men and women of color presented their check at the Bank of Justice, it came back marked 'insufficient funds.'
"Fifty years later," Young concluded, "we're still here trying to cash that bad check. Fifty years later, we're still dealing with all kinds of problems, and so we're not here to claim any victory - we're to simply say that the struggle continues."
Wednesday's march started about 9:10 a.m. ET. Banners and T-shirts and chants focused on the Trayvon Martin case 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.
Reginald Gilluno, 39, stood next to a portrait of King made of melted crayons and makeup so that people who are visually impaired could feel the power of the portrait. His mother, Oni Gilluno, 57, was 8 years old in 1963 and acknowledges that much has changed since then. But she believes there is still a lot of underlying racism. "A Caucasian person just doesn't get it."
Robin McNair, a teacher at Dupont Park Adventist School in the District of Columbia, said she and fellow teachers brought 50 students to the march. "We want them to experience history and be a part of it. Fifty years from now, they will be able to look back and remember this day and say they were there."
James Carter, 62, a retired educator from Hershey, Pa., said he left home at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday with a friend and his local pastor. "I wanted to be part of the march this time. I was too young - 12 - to go in '63," he said.
Carter said the dream of equal rights "has been realized for some, but there appears to be a concerted effort to diminish the dream. It's important to let them know that we won't stand for it. Dr. King wanted a complete America and we don't have that now."
He's concerned about a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. "The court took away clauses that allowed the (Justice Department) to address injustice," he said. "Look at North Carolina and Texas, which passed repressive laws (soon after) the Supreme Court decision. To say that everything is OK now is far from the truth."
The gathering, titled "Let Freedom Ring," was 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 marked the occasion, including appearances by everyone from Oprah Winfrey 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.
Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, struck a more defiant tone, telling the National Mall crowd, "It is time to step it up and get busy."
Campbell said racism is alive and well in the USA. She compared recent setbacks in voting rights to Ku Klux Klan efforts to intimidate blacks into not voting.
"There are no white sheets, but there are judges in black robes in the U.S. Supreme Court who struck down Section IV of the Voting Rights Act, opening the floodgates in many states to pass more voter I.D. laws to block people of color and young people from voting, with the goal of ensuring we never see another black man elected President - or woman - of the United States of America."
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.
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.