Tens of thousands of people marched on D.C. streets Saturday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington -- and to rally for D.C. statehood.
In rapid fire, speakers stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and called for all people to continue to pursue the dream of racial and socioeconomic equality King fought for 50 years ago.
"This is not the time for nostalgic commemoration,'' said Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of the slain civil rights leader. "Nor is this the time for self-congratulatory celebration. The task is not done. The journey is not complete. We can and we must do more.''
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder paid tribute to the forerunners of the modern civil rights movement.
“Their march is now our march, and it must go on,” Holder said. “But for them, I would not be Attorney General of the United States, and Barack Obama would not be President of the United States.”
He spoke of criticisms of the Supreme Court’s decision in June to strike down a key anti-discrimination provision of 1965’s landmark Voting Rights Act, which triggered a wave of “cumbersome” voting laws in several states.
“This morning, we affirm that struggle must and will go on until every eligible American has a chance to exercise his or her right to vote," said Holder, who sued Texas over a strict voter ID law on Thursday.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) joined Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Md.) in urging activists to advocate for equality and fairness, placing recent social debates in the context of King’s vision.
“Many of our people still inhabit islands of poverty, are incapable of finding good jobs, have no voice in our democracy, because they are told they have no valid ID,” Hoyer said.
Rev. Al Shaprton, a civil rights activist and host of PoliticsNation on MSNBC, spoke about the changes in the voting rights laws, the lack of a comprehensive jobs bill and the disillusioned attitudes of the youth of today.
Referencing King’s quote in his “I Have A Dream” speech about America giving people “a check that has come back marked 'insufficient funds,’” Sharpton called for action to make lawmakers take notice about the financial disparity in the United States.
“We’ve re-deposited the check. Well, guess what? It bounced again. But this time it was marked stop payment,” he said, addressing Congress with his words. “We’re going to make you make the check good or we’re going to close down the bank.”
Sharpton also explained why he thought King spoke about dreams 50 years ago.
“Dreams are for those who won’t accept reality. So they dream about what is not there, but will make it happen,” Sharpton said. “We must give us our young people dreams again. You build jails, closed schools and break their dream and you wonder why they are wearing saggy pants.”
Bernice King, daughter of King, gave a prayer that included her father's words, "Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last."
After the prayer, the crowd gathered to march past the MLK Memorial and down Independence Avenue, ending near the Washington Monument.
Following the rally, a Global Freedom Festival kicks off on the National Mall. All events are open to the public.
These events kick of days of commemoration leading up to Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
But the National Action Network, one of the organizers of the event, has said they don’t want the event to be just a commemoration or a celebration, reported News4's Aaron Gilchrist. They want it to be a protest.
They want to send a message to lawmakers and Congress to “realize the dream” -- pushing Congress to realize there is still work to be done on immigration, jobs, civil rights, and women’s issues.
Reverend Jesse Jackson, a participant in the original march 50 years ago, said there were many barriers in those days that have fallen, but there are more barriers coming up today.
“We’ve gone from being denied the right to vote to the crown jewel, President Barack (Obama) in the White House today. Yet beyond that, too many are facing abounding poverty, student loan debt, credit card debt,” Jackson said. “Now we need a focus on legislation and appropriations to revive the war on poverty and fight for a constitutional right to vote.”
Jackson told Gilchrist that the progress made in the 50 years since the march has become fragile due to recent actions by legislators and courts.
“There is a radical backlash on that progress. When they are taking precincts off campus, that’s a step backward,” he said. “People working, but working poor without resources. Closed plants at home and sending jobs abroad. Jobs out and drugs and guns in.”
“We must fight now to sustain and rebuild our economy from the bottom up.”
Voting rights are a major focus, as they were 50 years ago. But now, activists are focused on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision this year to strike down parts of the federal Voting Rights Act. Those provisions were originally passed to protect black voters in mostly Southern states.
"We have seen the most aggressive attack on voting rights that we have seen in many, many years in this country," said Jotaka Eaddy, senior director of voting rights for the NAACP and an attendee at Saturday's events. "So we want to send a message ... to make sure that Congress does everything in its power to fix section four of the Voting Rights Act."
The commemoration of the March on Washington continues until Wednesday, 50 years to the day after the Great March and King's "Dream" speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial Aug. 28, 1963 to more than 250,000 civil rights activists
President Obama will speak on Wednesday, as will former president Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. They will be joined by political and cultural figures including Congressman John Lewis, Ambassador Andrew Young and Oprah Winfrey.
The anniversary has echoed throughout Washington, D.C. in ways large and small: Before standing before those thousands of people, King made major changes to his speech at The Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. So to commemorate the event, the hotel has loaned a wax statue of King from Madame Tussauds in D.C., greeting King's family members and other VIPs slated to stay at the hotel.
The D.C. statehood message will be a major focus Saturday. King himself advocated for D.C. statehood and independence, and protestors calling for representation for D.C. were part of the March on Washington 50 years ago.
Stay with News4 and NBCWashington.com for more special coverage throughout the weekend and week.