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New Era Urged to Build on King's 'Dream'

Activists rally to mark the anniversary of the slain civil rights leader's 1963 address and to 'recapture the spirit that we had 40 years ago.'

August 24, 2003|Jonathan Peterson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Civil rights activists Saturday celebrated the "I Have a Dream" speech of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a rally at the Lincoln Memorial and urged Americans to embrace more fully the vision of social equality contained in the famous 1963 address.

The gathering of several thousand people concluded two days of events aimed at infusing the civil rights movement with new political energy as the presidential election of 2004 approaches.

A parade of speakers, including members of King's family, tried in different ways to establish a bridge between the concerns of the early civil rights era and the work they maintain needs to be done on such matters as jobs, education and equality.

"This is a demonstration to launch the new civil rights movement in America -- led by the hip-hop generation," said the Rev. Markel Hutchins, president of the National Youth Connection, an Atlanta-based civil rights group.

Alluding to King's message of jobs, peace and freedom, Hutchins maintained: "That message is as relevant for our generation today as it was for the sit-in generation in 1963."

The massive march of Aug. 28, 1963, riveted a nation coming to terms with integration and the increasingly assertive civil rights movement. While some 250,000 demonstrators converged on the capital in 1963, Saturday's rally drew no more than a few thousand. Organizers said they sought to inspire a new round of activism.

"We are here not only to celebrate ... we need to remember that Martin Luther King Jr. was first and foremost a minister of action," said Martin Luther King III, son of the former leader and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "He didn't just talk that talk. He walked the walk."

King III added: "Despite the progress we've made during the last four decades, people of color are still being denied a fair share of employment and educational opportunities in our society."

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), one of the organizers of the 1963 rally, said young people today have the potential to accomplish more than those who preceded them, but he spoke sternly about the efforts made by the civil rights pioneers: "We organized. We planned. We did the hard, dirty, nitty-gritty work ... we didn't have a fax machine.

"We didn't have a Web site or a cellular telephone. We didn't even have a computer.... We used our feet and we put our bodies on the line. We just got in the way -- and you must get in the way."

He added: "We must recapture the spirit that we had 40 years ago."

The speeches concluded vigils, rallies, teach-ins and poetry, as the highly diverse 2003 version of the civil rights movement sought a highly symbolic forum to voice its concerns.

Banners carried Saturday highlighted the movement's varied membership -- one declared "Arab Americans for jobs, justice and peace" -- while speakers focused on matters ranging from gay rights to the cost of the war on terrorism to statehood for the District of Columbia.

Democratic presidential candidates Howard Dean, Carol Moseley Braun and the Rev. Al Sharpton attended the event.

"Every one of us deserves to be paid fairly for the work that we do, and not be cheated because of our gender or our sexual orientation or our color," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women.

On Friday, Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain civil rights leader, helped unveil a plaque marking the spot near the Reflecting Pool where, 40 years ago, her husband said: "I have a dream."

"We must make our hearts instruments of peace and nonviolence because when the heart is right, the mind and the body will follow," she said.

She urged a new push to register voters for the presidential election and defended those who believe U.S. "militarism" is diverting resources from more pressing needs: "Let us not be intimidated by those who would impugn our patriotism by [our] exercising our right of protest and dissent," she said.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said political realities call for a major effort to register black voters in the South. In 2000, Democrats lost elections by narrow margins in important Southern states where large numbers of blacks are not registered to vote, he said.

"We must go South again," Jackson said.

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