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Thousands Mark Anniversary of King March on Washington

By Robert L. Jackson
Los Angeles Times


Championing causes ranging from civil rights to health care reform, thousands of advocates from across the country endured stifling heat Saturday to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Washington with their own procession to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The latter-day marchers, gathering under the theme of "jobs, peace and justice," included ethnic groups appealing for economic empowerment, steelworkers advocating better national health coverage, teachers seeking more funds for education and auto workers worried about the North American Free Trade Agreement. There was even an animal-rights group urging more respect for "our fellow earthlings."

On Aug. 28, 1963, a crowd of 250,000 spilled across the Washington Mall to hear King's historic "I Have A Dream" appeal for racial equality. Saturday's marchers were considerably fewer in number and less united on a single cause; U.S. Park Police estimated the crowd at 75,000.

Labor unions appeared to have the largest contingents.

Detroit auto worker Dan Bishop said he came with his family "to stand up for jobs and justice and to speak out against NAFTA," which many unions fear will lure American jobs to Mexico, where wages are lower.

A group of Minnesota teachers carried banners proclaiming: "Invest in Education." The United Steelworkers of America held up signs that simply said: "Health Care Reform," referring to the plan that President Clinton has promised to send Congress next month.

After marching a distance of about seven blocks from the Washington Monument to the base of the Lincoln Memorial, many participants camped out under shade trees, held up umbrellas or dangled their feet in the Reflecting Pool near the memorial as temperatures during the muggy afternoon soared into the middle 90s.

The District of Columbia Fire Department set up sprinklers attached to fire hydrants along Constitution Avenue, and many people dashed through them to cool off. Dozens of marchers were treated for heat exhaustion by mobile units provided by the D.C. government.

The crowd settled in to hear a combination of music and oratory. The roster of about 50 speakers included Coretta Scott King, widow of the famed civil rights leader, and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who had joined the Kings 30 years ago in leading the Washington march.

"Today as in 1963 we have a young president who offers leadership in economic progress," Coretta Scott King told the marchers. "But we know that leadership must come from the people."

Lowery, declaring that "economic justice" still has not been achieved, told his listeners: "Thirty years ago, we couldn't check into the Hilton and the Hyatt. Today we've got the right to check in, but too many of us don't have the means to check out."

The Rev. Benjamin Chavis, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, recalled that the 1963 march led to enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but he deplored the fact that "the color of your skin still limits your chances in society. Dr. King's dream still remains unfulfilled."

Saturday's marchers appeared to be a largely black middle-class crowd, interspersed with a significant number of whites.

One retired white machinist, C. E. Rosengrant, said he came from York, Pa., because "if we don't get things straightened out, we're going to have the same old cycle of poverty and injustice for the younger generation."

President Clinton, who was in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., Saturday concluding a 10-day family vacation, did not address the marchers in person. But he sent a message to them through Attorney General Janet Reno, who relayed his words:

"As a son of the South, I have seen in my own lifetime how racism held all of us down and how the civil rights movement set all of us free," Clinton said. "We've come a long way, but clearly we've got a long way to go."

Most people in the crowd were too young to be present when King delivered his electrifying speech in 1963. But Venita Conway, an auto worker from Southfield, Mich., said she wanted to attend Saturday's commemoration because her parents had taken part in the original march.