Theodore Dean marched in Washington DC in 1963, somewhere in the crowd behind Martin Luther King Jr. Exactly 58 years later, he decided to drive 16 hours from Alabama to do it again.
“I’m here because I’ve got grandchildren and children,” the 84-year-old told the Guardian as he and his son made their way past the White House.
Dean joined thousands for March On for Voting Rights, an event organized by a coalition of civil rights groups and nonprofits. Speakers included Rev Al Sharpton and Cori Bush, a Democratic congresswoman from Missouri.
The US Senate will soon vote on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a measure passed by the House which would restore protections from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 at a time when minority voters are the target of concerted Republican efforts to restrict access and participation. Furthermore, lawmakers across the US are set to redraw electoral districts, a process open to partisan abuse.
In Washington on Saturday, however, it was clear that voting rights was not the only issue on people’s minds. While some marchers carried posters supporting the end of the filibuster and gerrymandering, weapons wielded to great effect by Republicans in state and federal government, others chanted about police violence toward Black people, worker’s rights, the Afghanistan withdrawal and minimum wage.
In many ways, the spectrum of issues reflected Dr King’s agenda 58 years ago, when on 28 August 1963 he told a crowd at the Lincoln Memorial: “I have a dream.”
“The original march on Washington was not just about Black people and voting rights – it was for jobs and justice,” said Rev William Barber II, a prominent activist and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, after his own speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, at a “Make Good Trouble Rally”.
“It was about brutality, poverty, voting rights. There was unfinished business.”
Barber said the US was facing issues that had little to do with Donald Trump, the Republican president beaten by Joe Biden but still an active force in national politics from the far right.
“In some ways Trump not being president is forcing the movement to have to understand this was never about a person,” Barber said. “All Americans should be worried, concerned, mad and dissatisfied. We may be a civil oligarchy and not a democracy, and the next step is autocracy.”
Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign have held marches and rallies across the US, particularly in states like Texas, where lawmakers passed a sweeping elections bill this week that would curb access to voting, and West Virginia, where both cities and rural areas are seeing high rates of poverty and joblessness.
West Virginia is home to Senator Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat who along with Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has refused to end the filibuster, a procedural rule Republicans have used to block key voting rights legislation.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” said Rev Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, adding that a summer of action had given her hope. While the coronavirus pandemic further exposed deep economic disparities, she said, it also gave rise to temporary legislative solutions, such as an eviction moratorium and stimulus checks.
“We can take our experience here and make it work for everybody,” she said.
On Saturday, thousands braving 93F (34C) heat were holding on to optimism too.
“Our ancestors did these walks and talk so this is something I’m supposed to do,” said Najee Farwell, a student at Bowie State University in Maryland who rode a bus to the march with fellow students.
“I feel as though if I don’t stand up, who else is going to?”