Police violence, voting rights fuel passion at historic March on Washington

Fifty-seven years after Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial and inspired the nation with his “I Have a Dream” speech, a new generation of justice warriors gathered at that same place, on Aug. 28, the anniversary of that march, to mourn racist violence, steel themselves for the continuing fight for justice, and inspire one another with hope.

people raise their fists with the washington monument in the background

Though limited by COVID-19 precautions, the event still brought thousands out to hear passionate speeches from leaders like the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose organization, the National Action Network, led the event; Martin Luther King III and his 12-year-old daughter, Yolanda Renee King; prominent legislators like Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas); and labor leaders, including AFT President Randi Weingarten. There were also newly minted activists and—heartbreakingly—so many family members of victims of police brutality that there wasn’t time to feature them all as they recounted their pain and commitment to the cause.  

The earlier movement echoed in this year’s demand for justice: While in 1963 activists mourned the death of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, shot that year by a white supremacist, this year the crowd was still reeling from the recent attack on Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man who was shot by police in Kenosha, Wis., on Aug. 23. Activists are still demanding justice for Breonna Taylor’s death in March. And the memory of George Floyd’s murder in May is still fresh; his brother Philonise Floyd was so overwhelmed he could not finish his speech and his sister Bridgett Floyd took over. “How will the history books remember you?” she challenged the crowd. “My brother cannot be a voice today. We have to be that voice. We have to be the change.”

randi weingarten speaks at the march on washington

Participants spanned a broad spectrum, representing the NAACP, the Black church community, the National Urban League, and newer groups like DoSomething.org and the Black Millennial Convention. The many speakers echoed similar themes, urging action against police brutality and for voting rights, pledging to get out the vote this November “whether we got to mail in, walk in, ride in or crawl in,” as Sharpton said. More specifically, participants underscored their support for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020.

High school students London Jones and Ceon Dubose, who belong to the civic leadership group Black Swan Academy in Washington, D.C., called for an end to police in schools and condemned the criminalization of Black students, who are disproportionately pushed out of schools. Aalayah Eastmond, a survivor of the 2018 Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida, decried not just high-profile mass school shootings but the more common gun violence experienced in communities, including excessive police violence. She also called for funding schools and jobs over punitive policing and incarceration. 

Labor has deep roots in this march: The 1963 event, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was organized by Black labor icons A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, who invited King to speak. “King said, ‘We’ve come … to dramatize a shameful condition,’” Weingarten recounted. “That shameful condition—prejudice, discrimination and economic inequality—has not been cured, it’s metastasized.”

The ills Weingarten listed hew closely to union issues and intersect tightly with civil rights: underfunded public schools; voter suppression; substandard housing, healthcare and transportation; insufficient wages; and discriminatory policing and mass incarceration. “Black Americans, whether from their higher rates of deaths from asthma or from COVID, have been struggling to breathe long before Eric Garner and George Floyd were suffocated at the hands of authorities,” said Weingarten.

group of people at march on washington

She echoed others’ urgent call to vote: “We need to get in ‘good trouble,’” she said, quoting the late John Lewis. “We need to vote. We need a president who will sign the bills that make this country more fair, more just, more equal. That is our job.”

“Demonstration without legislation will not lead to change,” agreed Sharpton. “We didn’t come out and stand in this heat because we didn’t have nothing to do. We come to let you know that we will stand in the heat at the polls all day long.”

“Another world is possible,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley. “Yes, it is possible to legislate justice and accountability. People over profits. Joy over trauma. Freedom over fear. Yes, it is possible to write budgets that actually value Black lives.”

As for hope, perhaps Martin Luther King Jr.’s granddaughter Yolanda said it best: After promising “Papa King” that her generation would not forget Montgomery, she said, “We have only just begun to fight. We are going to be the generation that dismantles systemic racism once and for all, now and forever.”

“This dream is still alive,” said Sharpton. “You might have killed the dreamer, but you can’t kill the dream.”

[Virginia Myers]