Capping a week of protests and outrage over the police shooting of a black man in Wisconsin, civil rights advocates have denounced police and vigilante violence at a commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Thousands gathered near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where the Rev Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” address, a vision of racial equality that remains elusive for millions of Americans.
The event came on the heels of yet another shooting by a white police officer of a black man — 29-year-old Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin — that sparked days of protests and violence that left two dead.
“I want to give space for Black people in the crowd to say they are not okay,” said Jumaane Williams, New York City’s public advocate, who addressed march attendees shortly after the program began.
“We are like the nameless grandmothers who got in the streets and said, ‘We will make you live up to what America says she is,’” Williams said. “We are here. We’re not going anywhere.”
Activist Frank Nitty, who said he walked 750 miles for 24 days from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Washington for Friday’s march, spoke to the audience about persistence in the fight for justice.
“Are y’all tired? Because I’m tired,” Mr Nitty said. “They think this is a negotiation, but I came here to demand change. My grandson ain’t gonna march for the same things that my granddaddy marched for. This is a revolution.”
March attendee Jerome Butler, 33, of DC, echoed Mr Nitty’s sentiment.
“My hope is that my son doesn’t have to be out here in another 50 years protesting the same thing,” Mr Butler said.
Early on, the march was shaping up to be the largest political gathering in Washington since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Many attendees showed up wearing T-shirts bearing the image and words of the late Rep John Lewis who, until his death last month, was the last living speaker at the original March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which went on to become one of the most famous political rallies in US history, and one of the largest gatherings at the nation’s capital with over 200,000 people advocating for social change.
Participants streaming in for the march late on Friday morning stood in lines that stretched for several blocks, as organisers insisted on taking temperatures as part of coronavirus protocols.
Organisers reminded attendees to practice social distancing and wear masks throughout the programme.
Martin Luther King III, a son of the late civil rights leader and the Rev Al Sharpton, whose civil rights organisation, the National Action Network, planned Friday’s event, delivered keynote addresses that show the urgency for federal policing reforms, to decry racial violence, and to demand voting rights protections ahead of the November general election.
“We’ve come to bear witness, to remain awake, to remember from where we’ve come and to carefully consider where we’re going,” Mr King said.
“Whether you’re here in person or watching on (television networks), thank you for joining us for this March on Washington.”
“We’re taking a step forward on America’s rocky but righteous journey toward justice,” he added.
“We didn’t just come out here to have a show,” Rev Sharpton said. “Demonstration without legislation will not lead to change.”
Following the commemorative rally, participants will march to the Martin Luther King, Jr memorial in West Potomac Park, next to the National Mall, and then disperse.
Turnout in Washington was expected to be lighter than initially intended due to city-imposed coronavirus pandemic restrictions that limit out-of-state visitors to the nation’s capital.