Thousands flocked from around the country to stand in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday. The capital’s National Mall was flooded as men, women and children stood behind metal barriers to mark the 50th anniversary of one of modern America’s most iconic events – the March on Washington.
An estimated 100,000 made the pilgrimage, venerating a defining moment in the struggle for civil rights. And while Saturday’s event came four days before the actual anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous address (28 August), “I have a dream” provided much of the focus for a commemoration of one of the most remarkable moments in US national consciousness.
King’s son, Martin Luther King III, led the event, flanked by the Reverend Al Sharpton, the Reverend Jess Jackson and Corey Booker, the Mayor of Newark. Attorney General Eric Holder, the first African-American to hold that office, was also in attendance. The latter told the crowd of the debt he owed those that had marched 50 years before.
Following speeches, the crowd made the short walk from the Lincoln Memorial to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, less than a mile away.
On Wednesday, President Obama, alongside former incumbents of the office, will gather on at the Lincoln Memorial to mark the occasion of the speech. Church Bells are scheduled to sound to mark the start of King’s historic address. The symbolism of America’s first black president speaking 50 years on from what many regard as a watershed event in the country’s fight for equality is potent.
The Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) ushered in a new era in US history, one in which a black man could rise to hold the nation’s top office. However, despite the advances since the dark days of segregation and Jim Crow, the US remains a nation riven by questions of race.
Last week, a poll revealed that less than half of all Americans believed their country had made substantial progress towards racial equality in the past half century, despite Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012.
Reported by AP and carried out by the Pew Research Centre, the poll outlined a country in which racial progress has stalled, with only 1-4 African-Americans saying that the situation for black people has improved in the past five years. Nearly half of all Americans said that “a lot more” needed to be done for the country to reach racial equality.
According to Pew's Rich Morin, the research showed that people though the society was “heading in the right direction" but there was still some way to go. Morin added: “Most Americans realise we have made at least some progress in the past fifty years, just as large majorities say that we need to do more to become a truly colour blind society.”
There’s little doubt that the downturn brought on by the economic crash have exacerbated conditions for African Americans, many of whom were already far from economic parity before 2008. Unemployment rates among African-Americans are currently around double that of white Americans.
In recent days black leaders have rallied, calling for greater equality across the whole of society – financial parity, equal opportunities in education and improved healthcare. The hot button topics of the Voting Rights Act, which was subject to a recent Supreme Court ruling that loosened the law which could allow for racial discrimination, and the hugely-publicised shooting of Treyvon Martin, which divided the country further, were given as examples of the strides yet to be made.
On Saturday, Obama released a statement in which he said it was "not enough to reflect with pride on the victories of the Civil Rights Movement", adding that progress had to be made "in our time".
"Let us guard against prejudice – whether at the polls or in the workplace, whether on our streets or in our hearts – and let us pledge that, in the words of Dr. King, "we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream," the statement read.
King famously dreamed that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”. Despite the progress of the intervening fifty years, most African-Americans would argue that the country is not there yet.