Organizers expected about 100,000 people to participate in the event, the precursor to the actual anniversary of the Aug. 28, 1963, march that drew some 250,000 to the National Mall and ushered in the idea of massive, nonviolent demonstrations.
Marchers began arriving early Saturday, many staking out their spots as the sun rose in a clear sky over the Capitol. By midday, tens of thousands had gathered on the National Mall.
Lynda Chambers, 58, gave up a day’s pay to attend because her retail job does not provide paid vacation. Even as a 7-year-old at the time of the original march, she felt alienated and deprived of her rights. Remembering those feelings, she said, she was compelled to make the trip Saturday.
“I wanted to have some sort of connection to what I have always known, as far as being a black person,” she said.
Speakers frequently mentioned persistent high unemployment among blacks, which is about twice that of white Americans, and the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida. Along the Mall, Martin’s picture was nearly as ubiquitous as King’s.
Nancy Norman, of Seattle, said she was disappointed more people who look like her had not attended. She is white. But the 58-year-old said she was glad to hear climate change discussed alongside voting rights.
“I’m the kind of person who thinks all of those things are interconnected. Climate change is at the top of my list,” Norman said. “I don’t think it’s one we can set aside for any other discussion.”
On the day of the anniversary, President Barack Obama will speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He will be joined by former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Churches and groups have been asked to ring bells at 3 p.m. Wednesday, marking the exact time King spoke.
Joseph Lowery, who founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference along with King, urged the crowd to continue working for King’s ideals.
“We’ve come to Washington to commemorate,” the 92-year-old civil rights leader said, “and we’re going home to agitate.”