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Marchers From 1963 On Their Achievements And This Year's Events

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

History echoed before the Lincoln Memorial today in the nation's capital as protesters gathered to demand an end to police brutality and racial injustice. They stand in the same spot where, 57 years ago, protesters stood to demand full voting rights, an end to segregation and a living wage for Black Americans. NPR sat down with some of the people who marched on Washington in 1963 to talk about that day and how this moment of reckoning with racism looks from their vantage. We start with Courtland Cox, who was an organizer with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

COURTLAND COX: One of the things you have to remember is that the African American community had already been through the sit-ins. They had already been through the Freedom Rides. So when the call was made by A. Philip Randolph to have a march on Washington, people were ready to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

A PHILIP RANDOLPH: They want no reservations. They want complete equality - social, economic and political.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We are requesting all citizens to move into Washington, to go by plane, by car, bus, any way that you can get there. Walk if necessary.

COX: Bayard Rustin and I got up early in the morning, and we went out to the Mall. There was not a soul on the Mall - no one. And Bayard turns to me and said, Courtland, do you think anyone is coming to this march? And soon as he said that, I mean, people were just pouring out of bus stations, of train stations.

EDITH LEE-PAYNE: My name is Edith Lee-Payne. It was my 12th birthday. We started off at the monument. So as people were filling up, it was just kind of amazing to see. You know, at some point, that's all I could see - was just walls of people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: By your great numbers, you have forced a slow, dignified and stated march. We'll see you at the Lincoln Memorial.

A PETER BAILEY: My name is Professor A. Peter Bailey. I went from first grade through 12th grade and had learned practically nothing about Black history - I mean, nothing. I always liked history. And so I knew the March on Washington was going to be a historical event, so I went.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I have the pleasure to present to you Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

COX: People need to understand the big issue that Black people had to face at that point is, what do you Negroes want? Martin King in his speech said, what people want here is the full participation in the American dream. All the things that you hold sacred, we hold sacred.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: This note was a promise that all men - yes, Black men as well as white men - would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

BAILEY: That was a powerful speech. It's almost criminal the way they have reduced that man to, I have a dream. The way he talks about the Founding Fathers of this country gave our ancestors a promissory note...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KING: But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

BAILEY: And we've come here today to cash that check. Now, to me, that should be the quote, you know, that is memorized from that speech. You don't hear nothing - any programs, any events around the day of Dr. King's assassination. All you hear is, I have a dream. I have a dream. And I think that it's almost criminal because that man was way more than that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RANDOLPH: I think history was written today which will have its effect on coming generations with respect to our democracy, with respect to our ideals, with respect to the great struggle of man toward freedom and human dignity.

DANIEL SERWER: My name is Daniel Serwer. The image that we have today of the March on Washington is that the movement peaked and succeeded with the March on Washington. That was definitely not the case, especially the succeeded part. I frankly think it's an ideological effort to convince people that this is over; it's finished. And that's what - that's the myth that Black Lives Matter exploded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) Hands up. Don't shoot. Hands up. Don't shoot.

BAILEY: For my generation, the thing that got most of us alert and aware and made us begin to really understand what we were dealing with in this country was the lynching of Emmett Till. Well, I think George Floyd's lynching hopefully will do the same thing for the current generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting) No justice, no peace.

LEE-PAYNE: I don't know. It - I cried for a couple of days just seeing that. As a Black woman, as a Black person, that's not new to me. The deaths aren't new to me.

BAILEY: You think you're going to do something today and see the results next week or next month. You got to understand that this is - you're at a long-range thing. And your job - look upon it as, like, a big chain. And every generation must do its share to weaken the links in that chain 'cause the chain is definitely going to break. But it may not - it may be your great-grandchildren who see it break.

(SOUNDBITE OF NINA SIMONE'S "GOOD BAIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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