Past and present the focus of 50th anniversary of March on Washington events

WASHINGTON - Labor union groups and civil rights activists, some of whom were here 50 years ago for the 1963 March on Washington, will gather at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday to commemorate that event and push a new agenda.

Younger people in the crowd, such as Sydney Taylor, 27, of New York City, who attended a 2003 commemoration of the march, will be motivated by this year's events, she said, including the acquittal of the killer of Trayvon Martin in Florida and the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling upending the Voting Rights Act.

Ten years ago, she said she wondered, "Why are we still doing this?" This year, "it resonates more," she said.

Veterans of the civil rights movement who attended the 1963 march, such as Johnnie R. Turner, 73, of Memphis, Tenn., will be reliving a symbolic day in the nation's history, and measuring the progress that's been made since.

"The history and significance of that march is more than the ‘I Have A Dream' speech," said Turner, now a Tennessee state representative. "That was magnificent to be in a crowd that large and not hear a pin drop … But it's more than that. It's the challenge that that speech gave that left each one of us leaving there say, ‘I need to do more'."

There aren't many left who remember being in the crowd of perhaps 250,000 and hearing Mahalia Jackson sing "I've been 'buked and I've been scorned," or a future Georgia congressman, John Lewis, berating segregationists. Peter Paul and Mary sang "If I Had a Hammer," Turner remembers. Bob Dylan sang about the just-assassinated Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Odetta, Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Paul Newman, Sammy Davis Jr., Charlton Heston, Lena Horn and Sidney Poitier were in the crowd.

And so was Kate Ambrose, who now lives in northern Knox County, Tenn.

"There was a thrill of hope in the air that this is how the country was to become -- an interracial group of gentle, happy, loving and like-minded people," said Ambrose. "I had what I can only call a vision -- a sense that I had been shown what heaven would be like."

Joan Nelson, at 17 already a veteran of lunch counter sit-ins who took an NAACP-organized bus to represent Memphis youth at the Washington gathering that year, had a slightly different vision. Overwhelmed or dehydrated, she recalls passing out and coming to looking up into the massive white marble face of Abraham Lincoln.

Over the next week, thousands of people from across the country will travel to Washington for a week-long celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the march. Events will include a gospel brunch, an interfaith service and various museum exhibits and conferences chronicling the civil rights movement.

Two marches also will be held as part of the festivities. The first will take place Saturday with a rally at the Lincoln Memorial, where speakers will include the Rev. Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III and the families of slain teen-agers Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, the Chicago 14-year-old lynched in Mississippi in 1955.

The second will be held four days later -- on Aug. 28, the actual anniversary date of the original march -- and will conclude with a speech by President Barack Obama from the steps of the memorial. Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton also will attend.

Avon Rollins, a longtime civil rights activist from Knoxville, was not only at the original march in 1963, he was standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with King. Rollins still recalls the thunderous roar from the crowd when King started to speak and how, after a few minutes, the preacher instinct in him kicked in and he deviated from his prepared text to deliver what would become one of the most memorable speeches in American history.

"Dr. King had truly become the focal point and the symbol of the civil rights movement," Rollins said. But, "this was the first time people from all over the country -- all over the world really -- had a chance to see Dr. King for any period of time. They would get glimpses of him on the news, but nothing like this."

King would receive the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. But his fight against military spending and the Vietnam War, and taking his message from Southern pulpits to northern cities, where he demanded an end to poverty, made him deeply unpopular to some by the time he was assassinated in Memphis while intervening in a labor dispute on behalf of striking sanitation workers.

Louise Bowens-Brown, 65, who taught elementary school in the New York City borough of Queens for 27 years, said she's coming and bringing a 9-year-old nephew.

"I want him to see the significance of the march 50 years ago and how it needs to continue," she said. "I want him to be aware of what's going on … I have this strong feeling that we could go back instead of going forward."

The Rev. John Douglass Gray, 64, who pastors a church in Holly Springs, Miss., met King and shook his hand as a college freshman weeks before he was killed. His father, but not he, attended the 1963 march. He's making up for that by riding a bus into Washington Friday.

David Johnson, 56, is a high school teacher in Memphis, and will be on the same bus. "It's a thrill to live the dream as well as teach it," he said.

(Michael Collins is the Washington correspondent for The Knoxville News-Sentinel. Reach him at and on Twitter at @mcollinsSHNS. Bartholomew Sullivan is the Washington correspondent for The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal. Reach him at and on Twitter at @SullivanSHNS.

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