The early part of the day, Aug. 6, was overcast with cooling clouds. For summer in Georgia it was actually quite pleasant. As we walked toward where we hoped the “Keep the Vote Alive” pre-march rally was congregating, we could see the massive crowd hidden in the recesses behind the Richard B. Russell Federal Building in downtown Atlanta. We could only see the stage; we could not hear the speakers. It took a good while to move through the crowd.
We got up to the front of the rally just in time to be turned back around to start the march. We could only go inch by inch until the marshals allowed the mass to move. Even though they wanted 15 across, it was too late: we had to move as we were. We pressed to the front to see for ourselves just how large it was. The marchers extended as far back as the eye could see. How many people? We could not tell — we heard someone say 20,000 or more.
In the throng, we saw a sea of T-shirts in yellow (NAACP), white (Rainbow/PUSH), green (AFSCME) and red (Unite Here and Delta Sigma Theta). There were also streams of purple (SEIU and Omega Psi Phi), and a few of the AKAs were there in their pink.
The marchers, some chanting and singing, led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, arms interlocked with AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Willie Nelson, moved gracefully down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to Morris Brown College’s Herndon Stadium, where a post-march rally had already begun. Darius Brooks, a Chicago gospel artist, was singing. He broke into a chant, “We got the right to vote,” in a cadence which put the emphasis on “right.” It suggested a statement of defiance rather than a simple fact. As the crowd poured into the stadium, they were welcomed by Illinois state Sen. Rev. James Meeks, vice president of the Rainbow/PUSH coalition.
Every now and then the Georgia sun peaked out, and when it did, more and more of the crowd sought refuge within the bowels of the stadium. Before the heat got too bad, Sweeney and Georgia Congressman John Lewis spoke. Soon after, the crowd was delighted by the words and song of Stevie Wonder. Wonder’s words focused on the ridiculousness of having to march for the right to vote in 2005. But march we must until the right to vote is guaranteed forever, he said. He sang his new release, which says, if we do not do what we have to do, like participate in this march, then “What the Fuss.”
The Congressional Black Caucus was well represented with speakers including Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee, John Conyers, Charles Rangel and many others. Dick Durbin of Illinois was the only U.S. senator to speak. Former Atlanta mayor and UN ambassador Andrew Young and Harry Belafonte embraced the audience with their words of warning and inspiration. Belafonte did not sing, but he spoke about the need for the USA to play a better role in the world than that of a warmonger.
Other organizations represented among the speakers included the NAACP, with its new president Bruce Gordon, SCLC and the Deltas. Dick Gregory spoke too. Judge Greg Mathis rocked the stadium by charging that those who would deny us the opportunity to participate in any aspect of this society are criminals who should be locked up. In the ghetto, he said, it is known that when you shoot you do not miss. They attempted to shoot us by not counting our vote in 2000 and 2004. This march represents the fact that they shot and missed, and now we are coming back, he declared. He ended by repeating the refrain, “We’re coming back to get you!”
The exquisite sounds of Roberta Flack singing “Impossible Dream” and “Oh, Freedom” were a memorable moment. John Legend, a new young artist from Ohio, sang a freedom song he wrote but has not yet recorded, with the line, “We need more soldiers in this freedom struggle.” He also sang his much enjoyed and appreciated “Ordinary People.” Dynamic spoken word artists let us know that “somebody’s got to say something, somebody’s got to feel something, somebody’s got to do something … before it’s too late” and “I am not angry, I am anger; I am not dangerous; I am danger …”
It was a march and rally to support reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, and more. It was a march and rally for peace and against the war in Iraq, for democracy and against the obstruction of the right to vote, and it was a call to action: “Don’t let them destroy your spirit. Don’t let them take away your joy. Rise up and fight back!”
The rally did not end until early evening. It was a hot, long and wonderful day.
Dee Myles is a Chicago educator.