Diversity remains a hallmark of March on Washington 50 years later

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WASHINGTON, DC — Elli Wright had been waiting since dawn on the Lincoln Memorial mall.  The 10-year-old white girl was holding a Trayvon Martin sign, waiting patiently for the march to begin.

“I’m here for Trayvon Martin,” she said.

Elli helped inspire her father Ned and his wife Nung to travel from West Virginia to take part in Saturday’s march. “The main focus is for Trayvon’s family. They need to see this support,” Ned added. “What I’d like to see is an acceptance. Instead of people staying back when they hear a Trayvon story, they should see it as their family.”

The Wright family’s participation in the marches to commemorate the 1963 March on Washington is in the same spirit that was a part of the original march. While many remember that march primarily as an African-American event, the display of multiracial unity was a part of its mission. Thousands of whites helped prepare for and participated in that historic gathering.

Much like the march 50 years ago, jobs were very much on peoples’ minds and the concern for voter rights also made a comeback. Marchers took issue with the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down what many see as a key anti-discrimination component of the Voting Rights Act and the Republican efforts to require government identification to vote in some states.

“I’m very disturbed by voters IDs for an issue that doesn’t exist,” said Sharon Simkin of Virginia.

However, what may be different in the two scheduled commemorative marches from the original is the diversity of grievances participants have with their government.

During Saturday’s rally before the march, distinguished speakers took to the podium and voiced the multitude of concerns of countless people on the mall and throughout the nation, including demands for immigration reform, LGBT rights, women’s rights, the end of racial profiling, and the support for President Obama’s new health care reform, to name a few.

Perhaps the most glaring difference between the marches today and the original are the support of women’s rights and gay rights in the platform. It’s been noted that in the 1963 march no women were allowed to speak and that Bayard Rustin, an openly gay organizer of that march, was kept in the background because he was then considered a liability.

“When you think back 50 years ago African-Americans set the path for all Americans. I’m Asian-American and now civil rights are for all… Latinos, women, people who are disabled, and people looking for marriage equality,” said Kevin Ly of Brooklyn, NY.

Yvette Felarca is the national organizer for a civil rights organization called BAMN (By Any Means Necessary), which fights for the DREAM Act, immigration reform, and affirmative action. The organization helped bring 35 people, mostly students, from California and Detroit to Washington to take part in Saturday’s march.

“We’re fighting because we want to make King’s dream real, including the whole fight for immigration. We’re fighting for the federal DREAM Act, to open the borders and to stop deportations,” Felarca said. “We are united — black, Latino, white, and Asian — to fight the ban of affirmative action.”

Many of the marchers acknowledged that while there have been great gains in the past 50 years, America still has a lot of challenges to overcome.

Mitchell Zimmerman, a 70-year-old white man, was a 20-year-old college student when he traveled from California to participate in the first march. “I’m most proud that we dismantled legal apartheid in the south… What’s most disappointing is that there is now a new form of Jim Crow through mass incarceration,” Zimmerman said.

On Wednesday President Barack Obama is expected to speak to a crowd of thousands who will gather to once more to mark the anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream Speech.”  Many of the marchers feel it is only fitting.

“The president himself represents America’s racial diversity and progress yet he still presides over a nation where there is a widening social and economic gap along racial lines,” said Josh Ellis of New Jersey.