In Baltimore and across the country, Friday’s anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington was a time to look both backward and forward, and perhaps consider what a difference 57 years doesn’t make.
“It makes you wonder, what have we done, because we’re still marching for the same things,” said Donna El-Amin, among those who gathered along Gwynns Falls Parkway to mark the anniversary of the civil rights march.
“Jobs, inequality, problems going on in the world,” she said. “It seems like we’re just stagnant, and we’re not moving forward as much as we should have.”
Drawing several dozen participants, the event was one of many held Friday across the country to commemorate the march where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech. Thousands gathered on the Mall in Washington, the site of the 1963 event, which helped focus the nation’s attention on civil and economic rights for African Americans.
This year, it was the specter of police killings that hovered over the anniversary. As calls for police reform grow louder, as professional athletes cancel their games in honor of victims including most recently Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, some on Friday noted how younger generations were carrying on a movement that was begun decades ago.
Sitting in a chair and holding an umbrella with a sign reading “Black Lives Matter,” El-Amin’s mother-in-law, Ruby Couch, said she felt compelled to lend her 97-year-old presence to the early evening gathering.
“I said, ‘I have to come,’” she said as passing drivers honked and raised fists in solidarity with the demonstrators.
Laverne Braxton said she was demonstrating in the hopes of making the country better for her grandchildren.
“I really need America to be a place where I’m not fearful of them going out in the street, I’m not fearful of a police officer,” she said.
But she doesn’t advocate, as others have, to defund police departments.
“For my money, don’t defund them,” she said. “Train them.”
The demonstration was organized by neighborhoods in West Baltimore, and also sought to highlight inequities in services and transportation.
Demonstrators, from such communities as Hanlon, Windsor Hills and Garwyn Oaks, withstood a downpour, but then, storm clouds broke and they remained on corners and medians along the parkway.
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James Haynes, president of the Hanlon Improvement Association neighborhood group, said the commemoration was organized well before Blake was shot seven times by police, spawning the latest wave of protests.
”I lived through the March on Washington, so it is important that we understand the importance of that march then and how it applies in today’s world, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement going on,” he said. “That’s why we need to remember.”
The original march drew some 250,000 people to what was officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This year’s event had an official name as well, the Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks.
And indeed, as much as the earlier march came during the fight for civil and economic rights, this year’s anniversary arrived at a time when police reform and racial justice are a dominant concern.
As the original march advocated for the Civil Rights Act, then stalled in Congress and ultimately passed the next year, this year, many are focused on legislation named after George Floyd, the man killed in Minneapolis when a police officer knelt on his neck, which would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants and increase police accountability. It was passed by the House but not considered by the Senate.
For Sharon Moore, among those demonstrating in Baltimore, the cause of racial justice is owed to Blacks, who have made many contributions to a country that once enslaved them.
“This country was built on the backs of African Americans,” she said, “that were brought here against their will.”