Activists gather for another March on Washington, 57 years later – CNN
Exactly 57 years have passed since crowds packed each inch of the National Mall to demand civil rights and economic opportunity. In some ways, a lot has changed. In others, much has stayed the same.
So King will be in the nation’s capital on Friday, along with the Rev. Al Sharpton and tens of thousands of other expected attendees, for another March on Washington.
The march will be a commemoration of a seminal moment in US history. It will also be also a commitment to continuing many of the same fights: ending police violence, dismantling systemic racism and ensuring access to the ballot box.
“Dad would be very proud that people are coming together to stand up against injustice,” King told CNN. “But certainly very sad that we’re still attempting to get justice.”
Friday’s event — called the “Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” — will bring to an end a devastating week, one that saw yet another Black man shot by police. It follows a summer that has seen a global outcry over the killings of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement. And it takes place in the midst of a pandemic that has disproportionately affected people of color.
Adding to the urgency for organizers is the November election, the lead-up to which has been marked by a divisive and toxic presidential campaign.
President Donald Trump has downplayed police violence against Black Americans and characterized protests in US cities as a descent into lawlessness. Meanwhile, policy changes at the US Postal Service, along with Trump’s efforts to discredit mail-in voting, have prompted concerns about disenfranchisement.
Still, given the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, King says he is optimistic that the tides are turning.
“We are on the way to a resolution, I believe, because the consciousness is awakened,” King said. “I don’t think these young people are going to stop. I think they’re going to continue to demand justice.”
Activists are demanding police reform
Sharpton announced the march on June 4 as he delivered a eulogy for George Floyd. Though he had discussed it briefly with King and others, the announcement happened on the spur of the moment, while he was “moved by the spirit,” King said.
The march would be led by families that “know the pain” and know what it’s like to be “neglected,” Sharpton said at the service.
Those families — whose loved ones include Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and most recently, Jacob Blake — are among those addressing the crowds expected along the reflecting pool.
Activists are also calling on the Senate to pass police reform legislation named after Floyd, which the House approved in June.
The bill — titled the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 — would overhaul qualified immunity for law enforcement, prohibit no-knock warrants in federal drug cases, ban chokeholds at the federal level and establish a national registry of police misconduct, among other provisions.
That demand for police accountability is a priority King said his father would be focusing on today, were he still alive.
“Dad wanted to essentially eradicate what he called the triple evils of poverty, racism and he said ‘militarism,'” King said. “I have sort of changed it to violence: poverty, racism and violence.”
Marchers are evoking spirit of John Lewis
Friday’s march will also honor the late civil rights icon and congressman John Lewis, who spent his life fighting for voting rights.
At 23, Lewis was one of the youngest keynote speakers at original march in 1963. He was also its last surviving speaker.
“We’re walking in the spirit of Dr. King but also in the spirit of John Lewis to make ‘good trouble,'” Tylik McMillan, the national director of youth and college for Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN), told CNN last week.
Activists are building on Lewis’ legacy by calling on the Senate to pass a voting rights bill named after him. The measure, passed by the House in December, would restore a key part of the historic Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013.
NAN is also encouraging attendees to fill out the 2020 US Census, register to vote, and sign up to be poll workers and monitors.
Civil rights leader Rev. Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian, who died in July, will also be honored, McMillian added.
How the march will go
Demonstrators will gather at the Lincoln Memorial for the day’s programming before marching to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.
Complicating matters is the coronavirus pandemic. While new cases are down nationwide, infections are still rising in some parts of the US.
The application for the march estimated around 100,000 attendees, but the National Parks Service said it believes the number will be about half that. Local officials also said that attendance would be scaled back.
“It’s not a big march that was initially envisioned, but a seated event where the number of seats would be limited,” Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser said on Monday.
Bowser also encouraged people to stream the march online.
Organizers have stressed that the march will comply with health guidance and local ordinances. Face masks are required to march, and masks, gloves and hand sanitizer will be provided on site.
The Black National Convention will follow
Months before Sharpton announced this year’s march, the Movement For Black Lives (M4BL) — a coalition of progressive Black organizations — was already at work planning another gathering: the Black National Convention.
That event is also happening on Friday, and takes inspiration from the 1972 Black National Convention in Gary, Indiana.
The virtual convention will be broadcast live starting at 7 p.m. ET and will feature conversations, performances and other programming aimed at mobilizing Black communities.
The event was envisioned as a space where progressive Black organizers could engage outside of the major political parties and discuss policy solutions “without giving up their radical beliefs and values,” said Jessica Byrd, co-founder of the Electoral Justice Project of M4BL.
“Black people have been saying for literal decades that we want a meaningful place inside of the national political dialogue, and meaningful means specific public policy solutions that meet the height of the need and the height of the problem,” Byrd told CNN. “We have yet to have it in this country, on any side.”
Activists will also ratify a policy agenda on police reform, criminal justice reform and other issues, just after the Republican National Convention and Democratic National Convention.
M4BL supports several policy positions that are more radical than the ones organizers of Friday’s march are currently demanding. Among them is the Breathe Act, which would divest federal resources from police and invest them into healthcare, alternative community safety solutions and other sectors.
But while there may be some generational differences between the march and the Black National Convention, Byrd said the packed day of events is a sign of the political moment we are in.
“As Al Sharpton announced the march, we immediately thought, ‘Well, it’s going to be the best, Blackest political weekend to end this Freedom Summer,'” Byrd told CNN. “And that’s a good thing for all of us, and in particular, Black voters.”
Tragedy can be a bridge for change
August 28 also marks a more somber occasion.
It’s the 65th anniversary of the death of Emmett Till, whose killing brought national attention to violence against Black people much like the killing of George Floyd did today.
The 14-year-old was kidnapped and brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after being falsely accused of making advances at a White woman.
Horrified at the state of her son’s body when it was returned to her, Mamie Till-Mobely demanded that Emmett have an open casket funeral. Tens of thousands witnessed his injuries, and images of Emmett’s swollen and disfigured face were published for the world to see.
Decades later, Black people continue to face violence and injustice. The tragedies, past and present, are a persistent reminder of the change this moment demands, said Till’s cousin Deborah Watts.
“We still need to continue to fight,” Watts said. “We still need to continue to raise our voices, and to be very specific about what it is that we want to have changed.”