WASHINGTON – In an atmosphere charged by the “war on terror” and the Bush administration’s severe curtailments of civil rights, thousands of people marched and rallied here Aug. 23 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

King said at the time, “1963 is not an end, but a beginning.” In that spirit, organizers at the anniversary event vowed to push his struggle forward with a national voter registration drive “designed to present Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with the gift of full voter registration on his birthday, Jan. 15, 2004,” as part of a “rolling mobilization” that will “mobilize the forces of goodwill in our nation to redeem the heart and soul of America.”

Rev. Jesse Jackson told the rally, “Today we suffer from discounted votes in Florida, where the Supreme Court intervened to stop the count and determine the outcome of the election. From organized disorder in Texas to a destabilizing recall in California … the right wing does not seem to respect the normal tools of democracy.”

According to rally organizers, one of the aims of the anniversary events, led by King’s son, Martin Luther King III, was to “bring together the sit-in generation and the hip-hop generation.”

Ajita Talwalker, vice president of the United States Student Association, said, “The key to preserving our future and the future of generations to come is to fight for educational access for all regardless of income, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or ability. Education is a right and not a privilege. It is education that breaks the cycles of poverty and oppression.”

Sponsors of the event included the AFL-CIO, the NAACP, the Arab American Institute, NOW, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, United For Peace and Justice, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the National Council of La Raza.

“The hard-won progress achieved over the last 40 years in civil rights and economic justice is in mortal danger,” said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which was included this year for the first time in the march’s sponsoring coalition. Foreman said that no survey shows the right wing is in power because the American people want “what they are inflicting on the nation.”

“This minority is in power,” Foreman said, “because they … drive wedges into the heart of America and into our beloved community. Over and over again, we’ve witnessed their vicious dehumanizing and demonizing tactics, shamelessly exploiting race, immigrants, choice and poor women … To all of this evil, let us collectively say, ‘enough!’”

A second march, the Poor People’s March for Economic Human Rights honoring the 35th anniversary of Dr. King’s “Poor People’s Campaign,” crossed Washington’s Key Bridge on the morning of Aug. 23. Later that day, its participants joined the 40th anniversary rally. The Poor People’s March, sponsored by the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign and the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, was organized to continue “the struggle to make King’s vision of true equality and peace a reality in this nation and around the world.” They had begun their trek in Marks, Miss., on Aug. 2.

“We are marching now because more and more American families are being forced into poverty everyday,” said one of the march organizers. “We are marching because the growing health care crisis has left 71 million Americans without health care this year. We are marching because we live in the richest country in the world, yet our people die poor in the streets every day.”

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