Saturday, August 23, 2003

About a thousand people rallied in front of the Lincoln Memorial yesterday to commemorate and celebrate 1963’s March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which the slain civil rights leader delivered before a massive audience at the same location nearly 40 years ago.

Under a clear blue sky, people hoisted signs reading “Lest We Forget,” and “We Will Never Forget His Courage, His Dream,” while vendors sold books on King, Malcolm X and W.E.B. DuBois, and organizers registered people to vote.

King’s son — Martin Luther King III, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Council —addressed the audience from the spot on the Lincoln Memorial’s granite steps where his father delivered his famous speech.

“Let me first thank God for letting us be here on this historic day and for cooling off this day. Earlier we had teach-ins where we acquired information. This afternoon [during] our rally, our march we will garner inspiration,” Mr. King said.

“We’ve come to celebrate. This is a magnificent display of solidarity for jobs and freedom. Martin Luther King Jr. was 34 years old when he stood on these steps. Let me make it clear — Martin Luther King Jr., in 18 minutes, became the speaker of the day. Organized labor directed the 1963 march. Labor and working people were in trouble in 1963. Forty years later, they are in trouble again,” he said.

Activists and organizers representing an array of interests — from labor and anti-war groups to homosexuals and civil rights — held teach-ins and delivered short speeches to the crowd, which sweltered in the summer heat.

About 30 speakers from different groups followed Mr. King, including the National Organization for Women; the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; Democratic presidential candidate the Rev. Al Sharpton; U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat; the Rev. Jesse Jackson; and Damu Smith, chief executive officer of Black Voices for Peace, which is based in the District.

King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, received two ovations. Dressed in a lavender top with white slacks, Mrs. King reminisced about standing by her husband four decades ago, when 250,000 gathered to hear him speak on Aug. 28, 1963.

“Forty years ago, I stood on these steps looking at the largest nonviolent demonstration in history. … Most of speeches today [focused on] the metaphor of a check and broken promises to Americans. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘There can be no peace without justice and no justice without peace,’” Mrs. King said.

As part of a two-day anniversary celebration, an inscription was chiseled on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where the “I Have a Dream” speech was made. It was uncovered on Friday. The inscription, more than 2 feet wide, reads:

“I have a dream

Martin Luther King Jr.

The March on Washington

For jobs and freedom

August 28, 1963.”

A civil rights leader of the 1960s, Mr. Lewis was one of the “Big Six” organizers of the original March on Washington, with King, Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph, James Farmer and Roy Wilkins. Yesterday, the sole survivor of the “Big Six” addressed the crowd, which gave him a rousing round of applause.

“I was here 40 years ago, 23 years old, a few pounds lighter, with all my hair. Many of you were not even a dream, many of you were not born. We live in a different world today and if you don’t believe me — walk in my shoes,” Mr. Lewis said.

The Georgia congressman gave the crowd a brief history lesson, saying that 40 years ago blacks could not eat at the same counters as whites. During the spring and summer of 1963, people were killed for joining in nonviolent demonstrations.

“We had to do something to dramatize the situation. The March on Washington didn’t just happen. We didn’t decide to jump up one day [and have a march]. We organized, planned, did hard nitty, gritty work. We traveled. We had meetings at churches and schools,” Mr. Lewis said.

“We didn’t have fax machines, cell phones, Web sites and computers. We stood and put our bodies on the line. We got in the way. Too many of us got too complacent. We need to agitate. In spite of our progress, there’s still a great way to go,” he said.

One of the women’s groups active at yesterday’s events was the D.C.- based Black Women’s Agenda Inc., which was founded in 1977 to educate, advocate and support progressive measures for black women. Sonia R. Jarvis, president of the organization, said she was pleased by the pleasant atmosphere of the event.

“I think it’s great that all these different groups are here pushing different issues and concerns.” said Miss Jarvis, a city resident. “It’s good that with this many people that there hasn’t been any violence or negative incidents.”

Kwame Harps, 46, a maintenance worker from Rockville, agreed. “I think it’s a nice event, nice turnout, and things are going pretty well. I haven’t really taken the whole scene yet, but overall, it’s been all right so far.”

Nancy Kittrell-Addie, 39, a student from Cold Spring, Ky., came with one of her two children on a nearly 10-hour bus trip from Cincinnati with her church.

“I brought my 13-year-old, and at that age, he really doesn’t want to be here,” said Miss Kittrell-Addie, who said they got to take a picture with Mr. Jackson. “But I felt it was important for him to come because one day this event will be in the history books. He’ll be proud to tell his children years from now that he was here.”

The teach-in tent that drew one of the largest audiences was sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

“Education is extremely important,” Miss Kittrell-Addie said. “When I lived in Baltimore about five years ago, my son’s school sent home a letter saying 16 percent of the third-graders were reading on level. And they wrote it like they were proud of it. At that point, I took him out of that school.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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