WASHINGTON -- Throngs of weary but determined people chanted, carried signs and marched along the National Mall Saturday to pay tribute to civil rights leaders of the 1960s and to inspire a new generation of activists to take up the reins.
The idea was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech. But to many who marched Saturday, including King's son, this was more of a continuation than a remembrance.
"This is not the time for nostalgic commemoration, nor is this the time for self-congratulatory celebration," Martin Luther King III said from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where his father delivered his famous speech in 1963. "The task is not done. The journey is not complete. We can do more."
The Rev. Al Sharpton, whose National Action Network helped organize Saturday's anniversary march, called on Congress to fix the Voting Rights Act, asked states to repeal voter identification laws and asked courts to strike down the kind of stand-your-ground laws that, he said, allowed a Florida jury to acquit George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
"We must give your young people dreams again," Mr. Sharpton told tens of thousands from across the country who searched for shade, sipped water and fanned themselves while they strained to see and hear speakers whose remarks were shown on several giant screens between the Lincoln and World War II memorials.
Eric Holder, the nation's first black attorney general, and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the only surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington, were among the speakers.
South Hills native Arlette Travis Dolphin was among Saturday's attendees. She boarded a bus in Charlotte, N.C., at midnight Friday to get to the march on time.
"I came to honor the memory of Dr. King and the work of our forefathers. The benefits we are enjoying now never would have happened without them," said Ms. Dolphin, 49. "But I'm also here because there is so much more to be done."
Her friend Carmen Bray, a McKeesport native who also lives in Charlotte, said she couldn't help but think of the 1963 marchers as her bus made its 400-mile overnight trip.
Fifty years ago, black travelers stopping for coffee might have been denied service in a diner en route and probably wouldn't have been able to find a hotel willing to rent a room to African-Americans.
That has changed, but other groups still struggle, said Ms. Bray, 40. "A civil right is everybody's right. That belief is something very, very important."
Jesse N. Holmes of Washington, D.C., had a much shorter trek to get to the mall, but the journey still took him back 50 years.
He was 6 then and remembered his father dressing in a suit and a straw fedora to go to the march that steamy August morning. "I remember clearly him getting dressed for it and opening that front door. He turned to my mother saying, 'Come on. We have to go,' and she wouldn't," he said, explaining that many were afraid the march would become violent.
Saturday morning, Mr. Holmes walked out the same front door, donned a similar straw fedora and put on a pasteboard sign with a 1963 photo Ebony magazine ran of his father participating in the original march.
"I want to honor him," said Mr. Holmes, 56, a stage actor.
He also came to help advance the civil rights movement. "I want to see more profound evidence of equal opportunity. ... I still want to see the dream realized. That's why we're here: to reclaim it."
Others came to support a plethora of specific causes. Some advocated to keep post offices open or to increase the minimum wage. Others came seeking an end to human trafficking, racial profiling, gun violence and uranium mining.
Some said the cacophony of voices diluted the message, but others said there is room in the national conversation for all voices and that all the varying advocacy groups were united in a common quest to make the world better for all people.
"It seems everybody here has different causes, but they're all taking a stand and that's what's important," Homewood native Stephonie Rivers said before the march.
Around her, some waved the rainbow flags of the gay-rights movement while others chanted "No justice, no peace," and one man held a sign saying "Wipe out poverty."
Ms. Rivers noted that with an African-American in the White House, many people think there's no longer a need to fight for equality. She disagrees: Black people are still living in poverty, facing job discrimination, finding impediments to voting and enduring racism, both subtle and overt, she said.
Having a black president "does tell our children, 'Yes, you can do anything,' and it does give our children hope, but this fight isn't over," said Ms. Rivers, who now lives in the Poconos.
Hundreds of Pennsylvanians made the trip, including Linda Weyandt of Altoona, who also attended the 1963 march.
She was 15 then and in town with her father who had business at the Pentagon. Now, 50 years later, unfinished business brought her back.
"Once I got here [in 1963] and heard what was going on, I had to be there," Ms. Weyandt said. "As a teenage white American, you don't really understand until you go to the South and see outhouses for blacks only and bathrooms for whites only."
Ms. Weyandt said those images from family trips to Texas galvanized her interest in the civil rights movement 50 years ago, and the slow progress has kept her interested today and led her to come back for the anniversary march with her grown daughter.
She said Saturday's anniversary march had a different energy than the original. "Then there was hope," she said, standing on the National Mall. "Now it's more frustration. We haven't done enough."
Monisa Webb, 45, of Beaver Falls arrived with five busloads of Service Employees International Union members. She came for the history of the moment and to honor King's legacy.
"Martin Luther King gave his life for our rights, and we have to keep fighting so things will get better," she said. "Being a part of this moment is a blessing."
DeWitt Walton of United Steelworkers International organized a bus caravan from Pittsburgh.
He was just 11 during the original march, but he remembers being inspired by it nonetheless. He first heard about it from a beloved geography and history teacher at Pulaski Middle School in Gary, Ind.
"He told us if you're not part of the solution, then you're part of the problem. If you're not here to engage in direct action then you'll always be a second-class citizen," said Mr. Walton, of the Hill District.
It's something he has remembered all his life and it's something that was on his mind Saturday. "There was a sense of pride then, a sense of the need to engage, to achieve more," he said before the march.
The original march was a powerful moment in U.S. history and "this is an effort to galvanize the effort for the masses of Americans of all ethnicities, all genders and all political persuasions," Mr. Walton said. "It's about making America live up to its commitment to make all Americans equal."
The commemoration continues Wednesday, the official anniversary of the Aug. 28, 1963, march. President Barack Obama and former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter will speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Washington Bureau chief Tracie Mauriello: email@example.com, 703-996-9292 and on Twitter: @pgPoliTweets. First Published August 25, 2013 4:00 AM