57 Years After the March on Washington, BLM Activists Follow The Path of MLK to Demand Equal Rights

On August 28, 1963, hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington to advocate for the civil and economic rights of African Americans. It was at the historic event in Washington, D.C., where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his iconic "I Have A Dream" speech.

Fifty-seven years later, protesters will once again descend onto the nation's capital this Friday to also demand an end to racial injustice in the U.S. Most notably, this year's anniversary event will come on the heels of protests in the last three months after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd's neck for several minutes. Following Floyd's death, demonstrations ignited across the nation and a number of Confederate statutes toppled as millions have been forced to reckon with the systemic oppression of Black Americans.

Last Sunday, Kenosha, Wisconsin police shot 29-year-old Jacob Blake seven times in the back while his children sat watching in Blake's car. In response, the city has seen five nights of civil unrest as protesters flocked to demand justice for Blake.

This year, the issue of race in the U.S. is just as prominent when Martin Luther King, Jr. first told the world of his dream back in 1963.

Unite NY
Protesters with the Unite NY Juneteenth 2020 organization walk a banner with thousands of protesters behind them holding signs and some holding painted portraits of George Floyd as they march in a peaceful protest across the Brooklyn Bridge with the Brooklyn Bridge Arch behind them. Unite NY is organizing to bus New Yorkers to this year's March on Washington. Ira L. Black-Corbis/Getty

"To me [the march] represents an embodiment of unification against injustice and for the progression of Black lives everywhere," Clive Destiny of Unite NY, a New York City-based advocacy group that is organizing buses to transport New Yorkers to Washington on Friday, said. "Unite NY aspires to be an everyday reflection of the concept and impact of the first March on Washington."

"Growing up in a low income community, I understand the disappointment and frustration in wanting to be involved but not having the means to get there," Destiny added. "That's why I fought so hard to get the people free buses, because I couldn't help but imagine a younger, more eager me mortified because I didn't have the funds to go."

This year's anniversary event is set out to be different from the 57 gatherings that have come before it. Kimberly Bernard, co-founder of Black Womxn's March, said one reason is because of the new wave of activists who will be in attendance Friday.

"This is going to be my first year on Washington for this march. It's going to be a lot of people's first year because for many of us, this is our first time in activism. This year's activists are not the activists who were around last year or during Mike Brown," Bernard said, referencing the police-involved shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.

Breonna Taylor Sign
A protester wearing a mask holds a picture of Breonna Taylor as they walk past Grand Central Station in New York in support of Black Women. Co-founder of Black Womxn March, Kimberly Bernard, anticipates seeing the representation of Black women on stage at Friday's March on Washington. Getty/Ira L. Black-Corbis

Tyler Green, the CFO of Strategy for Black Lives, said this year's event will also be unique because of its timing.

"We are currently under attack, not to say there are times when we aren't, but just a few days ago another Black man was senselessly shot by police. A fire is lit under us this year that hasn't been as lit as previous years," Green said.

Bernard agreed that the nation is "in the middle of an uprising." She hopes to see Black women finally take the stage at this year's march.

"We're in a time now where Black women aren't waiting for anyone to give them the floor or give them the mic. I think we're taking it," she said.

At the original March on Washington in 1963, only one Black woman spoke. Gloria Richardson, the leader of the Cambridge movement, read a speech written for her by a male civil rights activist.

"I think a lot of the women would be very proud to see so many Black women taking charge, speaking up and having the mic," Bernard said.

Destiny, who is attending the event for the first time, said he also wants to see younger activists represented on this year's stage.

"We want there to be a great acknowledgement of the younger generation. A passing of the torch, if you will. I want there to be a disenfranchisement of who is leading the movement," he said.

Friday's March on Washington is being organized by the Reverend Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, who has named the event "Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks," in protest of police brutality. Martin Luther King III, the son of the late civil rights leader, will join Sharpton on stage.

The civil rights leader Martin Luther King (C) waves to supporters 28 August 1963 on the Mall in Washington DC (Washington Monument in background) during the "March on Washington". On August 28, protestors will march down the same path to commemorate the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington. AFP

The recent encounters between law enforcement and protesters have also left a bitter taste in the mouths of demonstrators who aren't sure what to expect going into Friday.

"The past three months, every time we protest police brutality we've been met with more police brutality. On that end, I'm kind of wary about going to D.C. because I don't know anything about D.C. I'm not from there. I don't have anywhere to go in case something happens," Marv Williams, co-founder of Warriors in the Garden, said.

"But on the positive side, man, the sky's the limit," he added. "The amount of people that are going to D.C. The amount of coverage that's going to be there. The amount of noise that we're going to make. The sky is the limit."

Williams said if he could hope for two things: "One is that everybody realizes how important it is to vote. And number two, which is kind of a stretch, is the ending of qualified immunity. If those two things could come out of me going to D.C. on Friday, I'd be ecstatic."

The hope that rings loudly in many of these Black Lives Matter activists echoes the dreams of those that have marched before them.

"I think the original protesters would be in tears seeing us continue the trend and push their legacy forward," Green said. "However, I think they'd also be disappointed that we're still having to march at all. They did it so we wouldn't have to, but here we are. It's now up to us to try again so that our kids don't have to."

"The road that our predecessors paved in 1963 was only the start, and it is our job as a nation to continue the fight for what is still an unjust system," Alaina Zuniga from Unite NY said.

"This march is to commemorate the passing of this responsibility as a nation—as the people—to show up and fight for what's right. And that is BIPOC lives, everywhere, always," Zuniga added.

Williams wants to inspire another generation of activists just as those from the civil rights movement of the 1960s inspired him.

"I hope that [the original protesters] give us guidance on Friday to keep doing the right thing, keep putting the best foot forward and keep being on the right side of history," he said.

Minneapolis protest
People gather during a rally in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 29, 2020 after the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white policeman kneeled on his neck for several minutes. Protestors will march to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. demanding an end to police brutality on August 28, 2020. Kerem Yucel/AFP

But, Bernard reminded protesters to pace themselves.

"We're over three months in and this is just the very beginning," she said.

"It's going to be a long run. It might take us into next year and it might take us into the year after that but we have to continue to have civil unrest," Bernard added.

Even though the fight for racial equality is long from over, Zuniga said it's crucial for Americans to understand the power they have to create change in the present.

She said she wants others "to understand the importance in coming out to the polls in November and voting out those who are holding this nation back from change. To remind the people the very real power we have to shape this current nation that deserves better."