March on Washington anniversary participants say jobs, freedom remain priorities.
WASHINGTON — Rallying behind themes of inclusiveness and economic justice, thousands of participants in Wednesday's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington said the work of the civil rights movement remains unfinished.
"Jobs, jobs, jobs for everybody — that's my top priority,'' said Mary Smith of New Brunswick, N.J. who works for a pharmaceutical company.
Robert Spiegel was 11 when he joined the 1963 march with his mother, then a union organizer, and his father, a lawyer whose New York firm represented Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
"We still have major class issues even though people don't acknowledge them in this country,'' Spiegel said. "We have a black underclass, and Hispanics who migrate here are also part of that underclass.''
The commemoration at the Lincoln Memorial and a march from Georgetown Law School that preceded it were partly a nostalgic remembrance of the accomplishments of the civil rights movement. Those accomplishments led to federal laws banning racial discrimination in voting and other areas.
Speakers at Wednesday's ceremony included President Barack Obama, former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, actress and talk show host Oprah Winfrey and the grown children of the late Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1963, King delivered his "I Have a Dream'' speech from the same steps on the Lincoln Memorial.
"Because they marched, America became more free and more fair,'' Obama said. "Not just for African-Americans, but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, for Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, for gays, for Americans with a disability. America changed for you and for me.''
Significant progress on civil rights made over the past 50 years has been challenged by new voter ID laws designed to disenfranchise minority voters, discriminatory enforcement of criminal laws and underfunded schools, the speakers said.
"We'll suffer the occasional setback,'' Obama said. "But we will win these fights. This country has changed too much."
Civil rights attorney Van White of Rochester, who organized Wednesday's march to the Lincoln Memorial, said the movement needs a new agenda. And he cited the need to update the Voting Rights Act in the wake of a recent Supreme Court decision invalidating one of the law's key elements.
Civil rights leaders "haven't put specific statutory solutions on the desks of our senators and congressmen to get them to feel the pressure," White said. "I don't think we fix anything by marching, and if you look at what our predecessors did, they had a list of demands.''
White organized a day-long symposium at a downtown Washington hotel earlier this week. The event was attended by more than 220 people who discussed how to solve lingering problems such as the achievement gap separating white and Asian-American students from black and Hispanic students.
Jean-Claude Brizard, former CEO of Chicago Public Schools and former superintendent of the Rochester City School District, said not enough black and Hispanic students are taking advanced placement high-school courses.
Leaders of black churches said at another symposium session that those churches aren't as involved in social justice issues as they were during the 1960s.
"The story has not been continued,'' said Cassandra Gould, pastor of Quinn Chapel AME Church in Jefferson City, Mo.
Black families who are sending their children to college and haven't had to struggle economically are forgetting about those left behind economically, she said.
"I feel that a lot of churches are just about their members and not society as a whole,'' said Rhoda Wren, who heads the social justice ministry at Liberation Christian Church in Creve Coeur, Mo.
Wednesday's commemoration and one held Saturday, also at the Lincoln Memorial, drew a wide range of advocacy groups, including labor unions, leaders of the LGBT community, disability advocates and Muslim organizations.
Many participants said they came to celebrate the progress of the last 50 years.
"I think we need to have more days like this where we come together and embrace our differences,'' said Manu Iyer, 37, of the Rockland County community of Garnerville. Iyer is a first-generation American whose parents immigrated from India.
"We have this obligation to each other to look out for one another,'' he said.
Janice Ferebee, a social worker whose father participated in the 1963 march as a unionized drug store worker in Harlem, said she participated for "freedom from hatred, fear, ignorance and greed.''
"We need to get everybody to work,'' said Ferebee, 57. "We need people to stop being so afraid of losing what they own. We need people to share, because there is enough for everyone. ''
Some of the marchers were interracial couples celebrating social changes that have boosted acceptance of their marriages.
David Figari, who is white, used the start of the march to propose to his girlfriend Jessica Jones, who is black. They are both 25 and from Tampa, Fla.
"I said yes,'' Jones told photographers at the top of the steps of the Georgetown Law School. She said the proposal's timing was "more meaningful'' than David's original plan to ask her during a November ski trip.