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Tens of thousands of people commemorated the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington at Lincoln Memorial on Saturday. The rally, march and series of events leading up to the main event on...
By Karen Ocamb
August 26, 2013 :: 6:07 PM
Tens of thousands of people commemorated the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington at Lincoln Memorial on Saturday. The rally, march and series of events leading up to the main event on Aug. 28 featuring President Obama was organized by the very pro-LGBT and equality-minded Rev. Al Sharpton with Rev. Martin Luther King III of the King Foundation.
Perhaps one of the most stunning themes throughout the rally was how speaker after speaker elevated 1963 March organizer Bayard Rustin to a place of premier prominence among the civil rights icons, rectifying the shame of how those same leaders, his friends and allies, shunted him aside for the good of the movement because he was openly gay.
Sharpton and King also ensured that there were gay people—including American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten—speaking from the podium to the throng gathered around the pool between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. And there were LGBT people and rainbow flags alongside other participants. (MSNBC had blanket coverage.)
LGBT people were speakers at local rallies around the country, including in Los Angeles, where openly gay L.A. City Controller Ron Galerpin participated in a re-enactment of the 1963 March and speakers included Assembly Speaker John A. P rez and L.A. County Democratic Party Chair Eric Bauman.
But the rally and march were not just to make people feel good about themselves and develop a sense of camaraderie with others. It was also an important call for action to stop and reverse the erosion of minority voting rights by conservative Republicans, aided and abetted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that gutted a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The concerted GOP efforts to restrict voting rights is not just an African-American or Latino issue—this matters to all of us, but especially to LGBT people. First of all, of course, LGBT people are people of color and will be directly impacted in the states where they live. Additionally, trans people who have not or cannot get their names changed on their official government-issued IDs might be denied the right to vote—and harassed at the polls by uniformed poll-monitors.
But LGBT people should care just based on principle of equality. The democratic ideal of ‘one person, one vote’ made the poor, always terrified, closeted gay person equal to and having the same importance as the richest person in America—in the privacy of the voting booth. That poor gay person’s vote carried the same weight as the vote cast by the rich person. But while the rich person has the ability to trumpet their views, the ballot cast on Election Day is sometimes the only voice and choice the poor gay person has.
At the March this Saturday, speaker after speaker noted that the dream of jobs, justice and equality that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for in his famous “I Have A Dream” speech has not been realized.
“This is not the time for nostalgic commemoration,” said MLK III. “Nor is this the time for self-congratulatory celebration. The task is not done. The journey is not complete. We can and we must do more.”
Sharpton—who has become the country’s premier civil rights leader, thanks in part to his daily megaphone as host of Politics Nation on MSNBC—connected civil rights and economic justice, citing Dr. King’s famous line about how African-Americans had been given a check by their government that had come back marked “insufficient funds.”
Addressing Congress, he said, “We’ve re-deposited the check. Well, guess what? It bounced again. But this time it was marked stop payment. We’re going to make you make the check good or we’re going to close down the bank.”
Sharpton also said the children of today often go dreamless. “Dreams are for those who won’t accept reality as it is, so they dream of what is not there and make it possible,” he said. “We must give our young people dreams again. You build jails, close schools and break their dream and you wonder why they are wearing saggy pants.”
Sharpton also took a swipe at sexist pop culture: “Rosa Parks was no bitch, and Fannie Lou Hamer was no ho.”
Ironically, it was on Aug. 18, 1920, that after decades of difficult and sometimes tortuous struggle women were finally given the right to vote. But unlike the Voting Rights Act, which has to be legislatively renewed, the Women’s Right to Vote was ratified as the 19th Amendment.
But now, Sharpton noted, conservative Republicans in numerous GOP-dominated states are rolling back gains on minority voting rights. “We had ID when we voted for Johnson, for Nixon, for Carter. Why do we need a new ID to vote for Obama?”
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder received a sustained ovation as he stood before the Lincoln Memorial and honored the civil rights pioneers.
“Their march is now our march, and it must go on,” said Holder. “But for them, I would not be Attorney General of the United States, and Barack Obama would not be president of the United States. 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,” referring to the lawsuit he brought against Texas over a harsh voter ID law.
Reverend Jesse Jackson, a participant in the original march 50 years ago, said there were many barriers in those days that have fallen, but there are more barriers coming up today.
“We’ve gone from being denied the right to vote to the crown jewel, President Barack in the White House today,” said Jackson. “Yet beyond that, too many are facing abounding poverty, student loan debt, credit card debt. Now we need a focus on legislation and appropriations to revive the war on poverty and fight for a constitutional right to vote.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Md., House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Newark Mayor and Senate candidate Cory Booker and Myrlie Evers, wife of the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, also spoke about the need for activists to work for equality and fairness.
Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.—the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in 1963—also railed passionately against the erosion of voting rights:
“When I stood here 50 years ago, I said ‘one man, one vote’ is the African cry. It is ours, too. it must be ours. … Almost 50 years ago, I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Ala., for the right to vote. I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us!
You cannot stand by. You cannot sit down. You have to stand up, speak up, speak out and get in the way. Make some noise. The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It’s the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democratic society and we’ve got to use it. Back in 1963, we didn’t have a cellular telephone, iPad, iPod, but we used what we had to bring about a non-violent revolution. And I said to all of the young people, you must get out there and push and pull and make America what America should be for all of us. We must say to the Congress, ‘Fix the Voting Rights Act.’
Obama and former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter will speak on Wednesday, as will GLSEN head Eliza Byrd.