WASHINGTON — Half a century after the emotional apex of the civil rights movement, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, tens of thousands of people retraced his footsteps Saturday, and his successors in the movement spoke where he did, at the Lincoln Memorial.
The anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington was less a commemoration, speakers proclaimed, than an effort to inject fresh energy into issues of economics and justice that, despite obvious progress in overcoming racial bias, still leave stubborn gaps between white and black Americans.
The speeches that carried over the Reflecting Pool, which 50 years ago prodded Congress to pass landmark laws, took aim at current racial profiling by law enforcement, economic inequality and efforts to restrict voting access.
Addressing generations too young to remember the civil rights movement but who benefited from it, the Rev. Al Sharpton, an organizer of Saturday's event, said: "Don't act like whatever you achieved you achieved because you were that smart. You got there because some unlettered grandmas who never saw the inside of a college campus put their bodies on the line in Alabama and Mississippi and sponsored you up here."
A lineup of civil rights heroes, current leaders of the movement, labor leaders and Democratic officials addressed a vast crowd that stretched east from the Lincoln Memorial to the knoll of the Washington Monument — well out of range of the loudspeakers. Organizers expected 100,000 people on Saturday, fewer than half the number who came in 1963 when efforts to dismantle segregation had seized national attention, often because of racist violence in the South.
Speakers included Attorney General Eric Holder, who on Thursday sued Texas over a strict voter ID law; Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, an organizer of the 1963 march; and Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager who was shot and killed last year.
"I gave blood on the bridge in Selma, Ala., for the right to vote," Lewis said. "I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us."
He and others said the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a jewel of the civil rights movement, was under attack after the court struck down the heart of the law in June, opening the way for states like North Carolina and Texas to enforce new restrictions on voting access.
Holder, receiving the first roar of welcome of the day from the crowd, said that King's struggle must continue "until every eligible American has the chance to exercise his or her right to vote unencumbered by discrimination or unneeded procedurals, rules or practices."
The Martin case, which led to the acquittal in July of a neighborhood watch volunteer, was also a major touchstone of the day. There were T-shirts with him in a hoodie and the acrid phrase "American Justice," and signs urging "Support Trayvon's Law" to repeal "stand your ground" gun measures. "We march because Trayvon Martin has joined Emmett Till in the pantheon of young black martyrs," said Julian Bond, the social activist, who attended the 1963 march.
Etiah Brookins, 36, a marcher from Queens, said she hoped young people drawn to the march because of Martin's death would discover a new connection to the history of the civil rights movement.
The program was far more inclusive than five decades ago, with many women speakers, Latinos and openly gay men and lesbians.
President Barack Obama, who is scheduled to observe the anniversary in a quieter ceremony on Wednesday at the Lincoln Memorial, and who was mentioned by many speakers as the glorious fulfillment of King's dream, was perhaps conspicuous by his absence. Through much of his presidency, Obama has been reluctant to frame issues in specifically racial terms, sometimes to the frustration of civil rights leaders.
His address at the Lincoln Memorial will fall on the exact anniversary of the original march, Aug. 28, and he will be joined by former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
After the speeches, a procession filed past the Lincoln Memorial to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, then east to the Washington Monument. The route reverses the 1963 procession — when, of course, there was no King Memorial between those of the two monumental presidents.