Report From the March on Washington 50th Anniversary Ceremony

The highs and the lows of yesterday's commemoration

By Brentin Mock Aug 29, 2013

A few seconds after civil rights legend, graphic novel superhero and congressman Rep. John Lewis was announced to take the podium at the "Let Freedom Ring" closing ceremony of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, he was interrupted. The Obamas had walked in, and the announcer took the moment from Lewis to recognize this. After the First Family was seated at the Lincoln Memorial, Lewis was given his mic back.

Lewis was one of nearly 50 speakers, performers and dignitaries participating in the ceremony, which drew thousands to the National Mall amidst showers that occasionally sprinkled the audience. It felt almost as if the rains sometimes dampened the mood as well.

When Lewis spoke, he had little of the fire that was in him Saturday at the "Realize the Dream" march. It was a subdued speech delivered calmly and made no reference to the speech he gave 50 years ago. Instead of roaring about the need to fight for voting rights, as he did Saturday, he chimed about unity–a running theme through all the speakers.

"It doesn’t matter whether they’re black or white, Latino, Asian- American or Native American, whether we or gay or straight," said Lewis. "We are one people, we are one family, we are all living in the same house, not just the American house, but the the world house."

Maybe the rain or Obama’s entrance doused his flame, or Lewis was intentionally striking a solemn note in deference to honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights leaders who made the 1963 march happen. On Saturday he grieved heavily and charged passionately that the U.S. Supreme Court and Republicans had reversed a lot of civil rights gains. Yesterday, he touched on that, but was more resolute about the progress that had been made, even challenging anyone who disputed that to "walk in my shoes."

"This moment in our history has been a long time coming, but a change has come," said Lewis.

When Obama later got up to speak, it sounded as if the POTUS thought that Lewis’s "a change has come," was about him. (Read more about Obama’s speech from Imara Jones today.)

If some were expecting "The Blueprint" or even "Reasonable Doubt" from Obama, at best what they got was "Magna Carta Holy Grail"– a less-than-magniloquent treatise on his own come-up. The key civil rights point Obama made in his speech — "Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed" — could have been shortened to a Jay lyric: "My presence is your present."

And yet he made sure that the beneficiaries of King’s dream hadn’t gotten too comfortable. Said Obama:

"We must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life."

Obama’s speech wasn’t, as rapper Keith Murray would say, the most beautifulest thing in the world, but it accomplished what Obama has been setting out to accomplish from the beginning: staying the middle-road course in effort to appeal to the liberals and conservatives among all races in the spirit of perfecting the union. Whether his legacy will reflect a victory on this as an honorable effort or flat failure won’t be determined for decades. 

Overall, the beauty of the ceremony was in the total roster of characters representing labor, education, civil rights, gay and lesbian groups and government. Even movie stars and entertainers were on hand. The day was hosted by actor Hill Harper and journalist Soledad O’Brien. Forrest Whitaker, who starred in the White House-based movie "The Butler," spoke, as did his co-star Oprah Winfrey. Jamie Foxx, better known as Django over the past year, challenged his fellow celebrities to "step up."

One group that wasn’t visible were environmentalists, which was disappointing given the shared history between the environmental  and civil rights movement. At the commemoration NAACP president Ben Jealous told me that when his organization began strategizing around how to fight voter suppression at the state level he realized that they needed "a winning coalition that’s as big and as broad as it takes," to be successful.

"The first groups to come running were Sierra Club and Greenpeace because they recognized that those most likely to vote to protect the environment were black, brown and young voters and that’s exactly who voter suppression laws were targeted at," said Jealous. 

Given that yesterday’s ceremony came on the eve of the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and amidst rebuilding efforts from Hurricane Sandy, the organizers might have been keen to point out the connections between climate change and civil rights. 

Yesterday’s ceremony was officially billed a "call to action," but if there was such a call it was hardly recognized. Foxx did remind remind the crowd of how Harry Belafonte paid King’s bail money and took care of Coretta Scott King’s bills until she died (perhaps oversharing on that last point). But action today has come mostly from groups like Power Shift, the Dream Defenders in Florida, Rev. William Barber and "Moral Mondays" protestors  in North Carolina, and thousands of other youth from L.A. to Chicago to New York who’ve been calling out the powers that be on Stand Your Ground laws, school-to-prison pipelines and climate change. They are King’s dream realized. They have as much claim to the change that has come as Obama has. But yesterday, as much as the ceremony was about the civil rights generation who started all of this, the leaders of today seemed relegated to the status of a dream deferred, or rather a dream interrupted.

Post has been updated since publication.