Today marks 50 years since King delivered the speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to more than 200,000 civil rights supporters calling for racial equality and equal justice in the United States.
“I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream — one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self evident: That all men are created equal.’ I have a dream,” King said Aug. 28, 1963.
Deane Bonner, president of the Cobb Chapter of the NAACP, remembers watching King on television delivering that speech half a century ago.
“I knew that he was probably the best thing that could have happened to African-Americans and him doing that speech affirmed his leadership for us,” Bonner recalled. “And it certainly affirmed my concept of him being who he was, one of the best leaders that we had during our time.”
She actually met King in Columbus, Ohio, a few years after the delivery of the famous speech.
“Dr. King was doing a rally at a church in Columbus and I remember just thinking that when you’ve seen a living legend, you’re just proud,” Bonner said. “You see him and you know he’s a real man.”
Bonner and a group of about 100 people from the local NAACP chapter took two buses to Washington, D.C., over the weekend to participate in the 50th anniversary celebration.
“It was important for us to be a part of that history,” she said. “Because of all the things they talked about (during the celebration), the NAACP Cobb County wanted to buy into that; we are ready to fight for the rights and it was very important to connect with people from all over the country and join in that message.”
The Saturday celebration in the nation’s capital included speeches by the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King III and U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Atlanta) and many others who all spoke about what King has meant to the country and then touched on various topics affecting citizens today.
Afterwards, participants marched in a symbolic half-mile walk from the Lincoln Memorial to the Martin Luther King Memorial.
Connecting the past to the future
For Erica Thomas, a 26-year-old Austell resident and founder of Speak Out Loud, her participation in the 50th anniversary was about being a part of King’s continued influence on people’s freedoms.
“It was so important for us to be there as young people because we weren’t there for the first one but wanted to celebrate the anniversary,” she said. “I know that it is our time to keep our movement going and not let what Dr. King did be in vain.”
She and six members from her organization tackled the more than 12-hour drive to Washington on Friday night so they could be a part of the celebration on Saturday.
Thomas said her favorite speaker of the day was the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, a 91-year-old United Methodist Church minister and leader in the American civil rights movement.
“He kept saying, ‘We come here to commemorate and we’re going back to agitate,’” she said. “I just knew he was talking to me … he said we need to speak out … this is our time, we have to keep it moving, not just keep sitting on this.”
Another young person from Cobb who attended the rally was 19-year-old Alexis Okeke.
The Georgia State University student, who lives in Marietta and graduated from North Cobb High School in 2011, is majoring at GSU in women’s gender and sexuality studies.
She submitted an application and interviewed for the opportunity to participate in the 50th anniversary march on Saturday. She was one of 20 students who were selected to go with the Center for Civil and Human Rights.
While at the celebration, she was able to interview people who were either at the march 50 years ago or were civil rights activist in the 1960s.
“I’m black and I’ve always had a great fascination with the civil rights movement, what led up to it and what happened after it,” she said. “I felt like it was going to be a good experience to learn more about the March on Washington, how racism existed then and how it’s manifested now.”
She interviewed Lewis and heard his personal story of what it was like to be an activist in the civil rights movement. He is the only person still alive today who spoke at the original march 50 years ago.
“He was talking about driving to Alabama and being beaten by the police, but how he needed to stay committed because the fight wasn’t over and if he had given up, then it would have been all for nothing,” Okeke said. “His story about the freedom riots that he went on, it just let me know that I need to stay determined because there is still more work that needs to be done.
“Aside from racism, I think there’s a plethora of other issues that need to be fought for. Other issues like reproductive rights, homophobia, sexism, transphobia … things that we need to be fighting against in the 21st century.”