Emerging from the shadow of the Washington Monument, civil rights groups marched to the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on Saturday.
The rally, a rainbow crowd dominated by African-Americans, marched for jobs and economic justice on the eve of the new memorial’s dedication.
Activist Rev. Al Sharpton said his National Action Network organized the march because the nation has ignored the plight of the chronically unemployed and because lawmakers haven’t passed President Obama’s jobs bill.
“If you won’t get the jobs bill done in the suite, then we will get the jobs bill done in the streets,” Sharpton said to the crowd.
The national unemployment rate is 9.1 percent, but the rate for Hispanics is 11 percent. For African-Americans, it’s 16 percent. The Senate voted Obama’s jobs bill down last week, but many speakers at the rally said they support both his bill and his re-election. At one point, the crowd spontaneously began chanting “pass this bill, pass this bill.”
The agenda at the rally also included statehood for Washington, D.C., and the issues of the Occupy Wall Street movement, with supporters of both groups joining the march. Lee Saunders of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), told the crowd that the King memorial is a great tribute, but to honor the fallen leader, demonstrators must continue his legacy.
“The richest 1 percent of Americans controls 40 percent of this country’s wealth. Our work, brothers and sisters, is not done,” Saunders said.
Other speakers, including Rebecca Pringle of the National Education Association, invoked King and speculated on what he would think of the state of the nation where he fought for equal opportunities for everyone.
“I believe he would be outraged,” Pringle said. “He would be outraged that 1 out of 5 children [are] living in poverty in this great nation.”
Though those on stage attacked lawmakers for blocking the jobs bill and threatened to vote them out of office for not supporting it, all of the invective wasn’t aimed at one party. Walter Andrews of Communications Workers of America said there was plenty of blame to spread around.
“As we dedicate this monument to Dr. King, we have another set of eyes watching these mean-spirited Republicans and these weak-kneed Democrats … they need to stop playing games with America’s working class people and put America back to work now,” Andrews said.
King’s son, Martin Luther King III, told the crowd that after bailing out the banks and Wall Street, it was time to bail out working Americans. King said he knew where his father would be today.
“I believe that if my father was alive, he would be right here with all of us — involved in this demonstration today,” King said.
King is speaking Sunday at the formal dedication going on at the memorial for his father. Along with Obama, others on the agenda include civil rights activists such as Sharpton, Rev. Joseph Lowery, former ambassador Andrew Young, poet Nikki Giovanni, songstress Aretha Franklin and other members of King’s family. Those at Saturday’s march said they would be at the dedication Sunday — to be part of history.