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Tens of thousands of people flooded the Lincoln Memorial and the National Mall on Saturday, the first stop in a week of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s watershed “I Have A Dream” address and the March on Washington.
A chorus of speakers rallied the massive crowd with prayers for peace and calls for justice that were at once testaments to King’s historical legacy and nods to contemporary issues, from hotly debated policing tactics to voting rights.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who co-organized Saturday’s march with King’s son, Martin Luther King III, gave a fiery keynote address that carried out his earlier promise to focus the day’s observances on the “issues that have stood in the way” of fulfilling King’s goals.
Sharpton, who founded and heads the National Action Network and also hosts a program on MSNBC, aimed squarely at the Supreme Court’s decision in June to strike down a key anti-discrimination provision of 1965’s Voting Rights Act, which triggered a wave of restrictive voting laws in several states.
“They are changing laws all over this country,” Sharpton said. “Congress needs … to deal with what the Supreme Court has done.”
Sharpton called on activists to march for jobs and economic opportunity, criticizing the federal government for “bailing out the banks” and corporations while many African-Americans grapple with poverty.
He later turned his attention to gun violence, saying, “We gotta fight against this recklessness that makes us so insensitive that we shoot each other for no reason.”
Sharpton added: “Don’t you ever think that Medgar Evers died to give you the right to be a hoodlum or the right to be a thug,” referencing the civil rights leader who was assassinated in June 1963, just hours after President John F. Kennedy appeared on national television rallying for civil rights.
King III, who took the stage overlooking the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool around 12:30pm, paid tribute to his father and the forerunners of the modern civil rights movement, but pivoted sharply to a host of contentious issues, including the debates over Florida’s so-called Stand Your Ground self-defense statute and New York’s so-called Stop and Frisk policing tactic, which some have characterized as racial profiling.
“My father dreamed of a country where his children will not be judged by the color of their skin or the content of their character,” King III said, “but Trayvon Martin shows that we are still profiled.”
The parents of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin later appeared at the podium alongside Sharpton, pleading for tolerance and social reform.
“We have to fight for our children,” said Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother.
A parade of speakers took the podium over the course of the morning, including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who recognized the monumental achievements of King’s original movement but acknowledged that many of his objectives have not yet been fulfilled.
“Their march is now our march, and it must go on,” Holder said.
“But for them,” Holder added later, referencing King and his allies, “I would not be attorney general of the United States, and Barack Obama would not be president of the United States.”
He reiterated earlier criticisms of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act — a topic that quickly emerged as one of Saturday’s focal points.
“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 on Thursday sued Texas over a strict voter ID law.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Md.) urged 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.
Booker, 44, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, called on young people to carry King's torch.
"Me and my generation cannot now afford to sit back consuming all of our blessings, getting dumb, fat and happy thinking we have achieved our freedoms," Booker said.
U.S. Rep John Lewis (D-Ga.), one of the pillars of King’s movement and the youngest speaker at the 1963 march, pressed the crowd to “fight the good fight” for freedom.
He energized spectators with a chant: “You’ve got to stand up, speak up, speak out, and get in the way! Make some noise!”
President Obama called Lewis, the last surviving speaker from the 1963 march, "a couple days ago," according to a senior administration official, adding that Obama is a "student of history" who thought the congressman would help him understand "the feeling of the moment."
Rhonda Hearns, 50, a physician from Prince George's County, Md., who will attend the march, said matters such as voting rights, equal pay and discrimination show that there are many unresolved issues remaining.
“I feel very honored to be able to attend this commemoration 50 years later, but it also stirs up a lot of emotion because we still have so far to go," Hearns said.
"It’s still very important for people to show up and march again,” she added. “Just a peaceful demonstration, like what Dr. Martin Luther King would have wanted."
Civil rights organizations, organized labor, the LGBT community and women's rights groups were all richly represented in the gathering.
Among the organizations participating in the march Saturday are: National Urban League, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, American Federation of Teachers, Human Rights Campaign, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Black Justice Coalition, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Service Employees International Union.
Unemployment, health care and education are issues that brought Yvette Young to the march. The 52-year-old Virginia resident and vice president at the Urban League of Hampton Roads hopes her daughter, 14, will have a better life than she did.
"My life hasn't been so bad, but I grew up in the 60s," Young said, adding that she had to witness a lot of discrimination. "I hope for a much better road for her," she added.
The organization is convening the event along with a range of civic, labor and business sponsors, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Sharpton and King III were joined Saturday by relatives of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was abducted, beaten and shot in the head in 1955 in Mississippi after he was accused of flirting with a white woman, organizers said in a press release.
The so-called “Realize the Dream” march, which will cut a symbolic half-mile path from the Lincoln Memorial to the King Memorial, will also feature remarks from Attorney General Eric Holder, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., according to the release.
The march and rally will be followed by the “Let Freedom Ring” commemoration and call to action on Wednesday — marking exactly 50 years since King drew more than 200,000 to the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his groundbreaking “I Have A Dream” speech.
King's address is widely credited with spurring the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
Young said the events of 1963 carried a deep meaning for her.
“I always wished that I could’ve been a part of it," she said. "Tomorrow gives me a chance to be a part of it. It’s 50 years later, but I’ll be there.”
Speakers at the Wednesday observance will include President Barack Obama and former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, according to the event’s website.
Obama's speech will center on the progress that has been made since the 1963 march as well as his vision for the future, according to a senior administration official.
Kristen Welker and Grace Bello of NBC News, as well as The Associated Press, contributed to this report.