Fifty-seven years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial, a new generation of leaders raised their voices in the continued fight for King's vision of an equal and just nation.
It was history in the making Friday as crowds converged on the National Mall for the Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks, organized by the National Action Network (NAN). Speakers called for comprehensive police reform, a robust census count and mobilization of voters ahead of November's election.
"We are at a crossroads, a crossroads in American history," Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, chairman of the board for NAN, told the crowd. "We are at a crossroads of perish or promise. If we fail to deliver in November, we will perish."
Photos: Commitment March on Washington
Rev. Al Sharpton, a leading organizer of the march, said they were also calling on Congress to act on the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the George Floyd Police Reform Act.
"Just like 57 years ago when they came to Washington to put pressure on the federal government, we come to say on these two bills, we want demonstration, yes in the streets... but we want legislation," Sharpton told News4.
Powerful speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s son and granddaughter highlighted the nation's progress and failings in the past six decades.
"We're taking a step forward on America's rocky but righteous journey toward justice," Martin Luther King III said. "August 28 is a day to remember the triumphs and tragedies that have taken place in our historic struggle for racial justice."
America is still fighting the evils that his father outlined: poverty, racism and violence, King said.
Yolanda Renee King, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 12-year-old granddaughter, was there to represent the newest generation of activists and give them a task: Master yourselves, push toward the next phase of civil rights and seek genuine equality.
"My generation has already taken to the streets, peacefully, and with masks, and socially distanced, to protest racism," she said. "We will fulfill the dream of my grandfather."
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee called for the past injustices of slavery and discrimination to be addressed by Congress taking up a reparations bill, which she said could be the most significant civil rights legislation of the 21st century.
"I am a Black mother who happens to understand Black Lives Matter every single day of my life," Lee said.
"We want an America that will stomp out the divisiveness, the intimidation and the threat. We want a White House who stands as a healer in chief, who understands Black mothers' pain and understands your pain," she said.
"We find ourselves in the spirit of John Lewis, making good trouble, necessary trouble, because the soul of our democracy is depending on it," said Tylik McMillan of NAN.
"We're not here to ask for justice," he said. "We're not here to negotiate justice. But we are here to demand justice."
"Get Your Knee Off Our Necks"
The theme of Friday's march was "Get Your Knee Off Our Necks," a direct reference to the killing of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for minutes.
Floyd's death, the killings of Breonna Taylor, Elijah Mclain and Rayshard Brooks, and most recently the shooting of Jacob Blake, have led to more outrage and demands for an end to systemic racism in America.
Sharpton and King stood with relatives of Blake, Floyd, Taylor, Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, among others.
“There are two systems of justice in the United States,” said Jacob Blake Sr., the father of the man whose shooting by police in Kenosha left him paralyzed from the waist down. "There's a white system and a black system -- the black system ain't doing so well."
Philonise Floyd, the brother of George Floyd, stared out at the massive march audience and said he wished his brother was there to see it.
Rev. Al Sharpton told the crowd, "They keep telling me about how it's a shame that Black parents have to have 'the conversation' with our children. How we have to explain if a cop stops you, don't reach for the glove compartment, don't talk back.
"The conversation. Well, we've had the conversation for decades. It's time to have a conversation with America," Sharpton said. "We need to have a conversation about your racism, about your bigotry, about your hate, about how you would put you knee on our neck while we cry for our lives. We need a new conversation."
While the country has made progress in the decades since the first march on Washington, those attending Friday's event say more work needs to be done.
Martin Luther King III was among the speakers who implored the crowd to vote for change.
"I think that if people in large numbers come out and elect a new president, and new members to the United States Senate, yes, there will be progress," King said before taking the podium.
Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, in a video, said the original conveners would be disappointed that Black Americans are still marching for justice and equality under the law.
"I have to believe that if they were with us today, they would share in our anger and frustration as we continue to see Black men and women slain in our streets, and left behind in our economy and justice system that has too often denied Black folks our dignity and rights," she said.
Former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted his support for the march.
Although President Donald Trump did not comment on the march Friday, the Republican National Committee marked the event’s anniversary by highlighting the president’s record as a “champion for the Black community.”
“While there is more work to be done, Donald Trump is the leader to make it happen,” Paris Dennard, an RNC senior communications advisor, said in a statement.
'Events Like This Keep That Momentum Moving'
Caravans of marchers began gathering in parts of the District before 6:30 a.m. Friday, closing some streets.
The stage was set on the Lincoln Memorial before sunrise.
Chairs near the steps of the monument were spaced six feet apart to allow for social distancing. As the event got into gear, attendees could be seen socially distancing from each other around the Reflecting Pool, although as more people began to converge, they could be seen standing and walking more closely together.
Other strategies to limit the spread of coronavirus included hand sanitizer, masks and gloves. Temperature checks and masks were required.
"COVID is always a concern, but this is bigger than COVID," attendee Evelyn Kelly told NBC Washington's Justin Finch. "One of my main concerns with any movement is that after a while it will lose momentum. And, so, events like this keep that momentum moving. The Black Lives Matter movement can't be something that fizzles out after a certain amount of time. So we masked up; we have the hand sanitizer. We're ready to go."
Around 9 a.m., a line of people waiting to get their temperatures checked before admittance snaked around the mall, WTOP reporter Alejandro Alvarez said.
Attendees weathered intense heat and humidity, with the heat index nearing triple-digits. The temperature in D.C. rose to near 90 degrees even before noon.
Following the rally, participants marched to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in West Potomac Park, next to the National Mall, and then dispersed. Some participants headed toward Black Lives Matter Plaza, right outside of the White House, which was renamed from Pennsylvania Avenue during protests in June.
“The objective is to put on one platform, in the shadow of Abe Lincoln, the families of people that … have lost loved ones in unchecked racial bias,” Sharpton said. “On these steps, Dr. King talked about his dream, and the dream is unfulfilled. This is the Exhibit A of that not being fulfilled.”