By Maria Saporta
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The leaders who stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial Wednesday delivered a similar theme — we’ve come a long way in the past 50 years, but we still have a long way to go.
And so many of the leaders delivering that message were our own homegrown Atlantans — people who helped shape and build the Civil Rights movement 50 years ago and those who now have been given the mantle of leadership to continue the fight for economic and racial justice in today’s disparate environment.
The role that Atlanta’s leaders have played and continue to play is undeniable.
Nearly every speaker on Wednesday referenced part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech or some of his other sayings.
With every year that goes by, his words only become more powerful — not less; his messages more relevant — not less; his wisdom more visionary — not less.
It’s hard to believe that when the Washington Post covered the March 50 years ago — armed with 60 reporters, its coverage the next day did not even mention Martin Luther King Jr. or the speech that has emerged as the most significant speech of the 20th Century. Talk about missing the story.
As the many speakers shared their words on Wednesday, I listened carefully. Was there another Martin Luther King Jr. among them and might we fail to recognize him or her? Or does someone with the greatness of King only come once in our lifetime?
The way I see it, the latter is true. The best the speakers could do on Wednesday was remind us of King’s dream and urge us to keep on dreaming; to keep on fighting for what we believe in; and to keep on marching for a better day.
Rev. Joseph Lowery made it clear that as a nation we couldn’t go backwards.
“We ain’t going back,” Lowery said. “We have come too far. We have marched to far. We have prayed too long to let anybody turn back the clock. Hang in there.”
Environmentalist Laura Turner Seydel spoke of the symbolism of letting the bells ring, and added that today “the world will be ringing their bells for clean water, clean air, environmental justice and freedom.”
Retired Coca-Cola executive Ingrid Saunders Jones, who is now chairs the National Council of Negro Women, spoke of the role that women had in planning and organizing the March on Washington 50 years ago.
But it was Bernice King, CEO of the King Center, who pointed out that “50 years ago there was not one woman on the program.” She also said that the President of the United States (John F. Kennedy) did not attend as she looked toward President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
“We come once again to let freedom ring,” said the youngest of MLK’s children (she was only five months old 50 years ago). “We must see this moment as the dawning of a new day.”
In fact, to have three presidents sitting at the base of the Lincoln Memorial to honor the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington symbolized the significance of the day.
Georgia’s own Jimmy Carter said that none of them would ever have become president had it not been for Martin Luther King Jr.
And Carter also credited MLK Sr. — “Daddy King” — and Coretta Scott King for adopting him and helping him win.
“Coretta was in the hotel room with me when I was elected president,” said Carter, who repeated what he said when he won the Nobel Peace Prize that MLK was the “greatest leader my native state and even my native country had ever produced.”
But Carter also added a bit of reality to today’s situation. There are 830,000 African Americans in U.S. prisons today, five times as many as there were when he left office in January 1981.
“There’s a tremendous agenda ahead of us,” Carter said.
Former President Bill Clinton, who probably would not have been the Democratic nominee in 1992 without help from Georgia, remembered being 17 and hearing the speech that changed America’s heart as well as his own.
“What a debt we owe those people who came here 50 years ago,” Clinton said. “How are we going to repay that debt?”
He then went on to list all the unfinished business — education, voting rights, health care, etc.
“A great democracy doesn’t make it harder to vote than it does to buy an assault weapon,” Clinton said.
U.S. Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) — the only living speaker from the 1963 March on Washington — provided an historical bookend for the day.
“Sometimes I hear people say nothing has changed,” Lewis said. “Come and walk in my shoes.”
He then shared his memories of the segregated South and the Freedom Ride. On Aug. 28, 1963, thousands of troops surrounded the city because there was tremendous fear that there would be violence with so many marchers coming to Washington, D.C. Even the liquor stores were closed.
“Not one incident of violence was reported that day,” Lewis said. “The spirit of Dr. King captured the hearts of people, not just around America, but around the world.”
Martin Luther King III, who is now the oldest of the King children since his oldest sister Yolanda passed way, was only five years old in 1963. Now his daughter, Yolanda, is five. “I hope she’s paying attention,” he said.
Christine King Farris, sister of Martin Luther King Jr. said she missed the first March on Washington, D.C. because she had gotten the flu. But when she watched her brother deliver the “I Have A Dream” speech, she knew he had hit a special note.
“On that day, Martin achieved greatness because he melded the hopes and dreams of millions,” Farris said.
The anniversary event ended with a speech from President Barack Obama who said that the movement that took hold 50 years ago helped not only African Americans but Latinos, Asians, women, gays and Americans with disabilities.
The president said that we can feed the hungry and house the homeless.
“I know the road will be long,” Obama said. “I know we will stumble, but I know we will get back up.”
And he ended his talk reciting a refrain for all of us to continue marching in our own lives to make the world a better place.
“Change does not come from Washington but to Washington,” the president said. “You are marching. That’s the lesson of our past. That’s the promise of tomorrow. People who love the country can change it.”
After all the speechifying was over, there was a touching moment when Bernice, Martin and Dexter King stood together as people took their picture.
I asked Dexter why he didn’t speak. He said he had been asked, but he said he preferred to take it all in.
Dexter King said he was particularly moved by Carter’s comments because he remembered being in that hotel room the night that the president from Georgia was elected.
“It was emotional,” Dexter said of the day. “Powerful.”