March on Washington 2020: Protesters Hope to Rekindle Spirit of 1963

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WASHINGTON — Hours after President Trump commanded the South Lawn of the White House to rail against what he called agitators bent on destroying “the American way of life,” thousands of Americans streamed on Friday morning to the Lincoln Memorial, not a mile away, for what frequently seemed a forceful reply.

The Commitment March, as its organizers are calling it, was devised in part to build on the passion for racial justice that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. summoned when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” address on that same spot 57 years ago. Early speeches from the podium at the base of the memorial, by union leaders, civil rights advocates and Black ministers, cast Mr. Trump as the prime obstacle to their goal, and voting to remove him as the first step toward a solution.

“November is coming and we have work to do,” said Kyra Stephenson-Valley, a policy adviser at the National Action Network, a civil rights group founded by one organizer of the march, the Rev. Al Sharpton. She asked attendees to scan their tickets to check their voter-registration status.

Frank Nitty was one of a group of Black civil rights advocates who marched 750 miles from Milwaukee to be at Friday’s demonstration. “My grandson isn’t going to be marching for the same thing my granddaddy marched for,” he told the crowd. “We’ve got to vote Trump out of office, right?”

That call and others drew cheers from the crowd, which gathered in shady spots in socially distanced clumps, clad in masks to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.

“It’s good against evil at this point,” said Ruby William, 67, a retired corrections officer from Maryland, who said she was voting for Mr. Trump’s opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, in November.

Dr. King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom drew an audience of a quarter-million. The Friday protest, called the Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks, appeared to attract a fraction of that number, in part because the city is requiring quarantines for visitors from 27 states. Attendees were screened for fever, and hand-sanitizing stations were ubiquitous.

A permit issued by the city on Tuesday indicated that 50,000 people might attend the protest.

The organizers, led by Mr. Sharpton and Dr. King’s oldest son, Martin Luther King III, said it would be a mistake to judge the event’s success by the size of its crowd.

“I’m confident that but for Covid, we would have had a million people,” said Marc Morial, the former New Orleans mayor who is president of the National Urban League, a sponsor of the march. “We will have, however, millions virtually, and millions tuning in on TV, and millions online.”

The march “has to be understood as a moment for which these protests must lead to something,” he added. “So it must lead to significant policy change. Structural racism is not addressed with talk or good will alone.”

While the protest commemorates the 1963 march, its larger purpose is to rally African-Americans and others on behalf of concrete goals. Those aims include increasing voter registration and participation in the 2020 census and enacting a new version of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, said Tylik McMillan, the national director of youth and college at the National Action Network, which Mr. Sharpton founded in 1991.

A major goal, he said, is to push for passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, backed by House Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus, which would overhaul law-enforcement training and conduct rules to limit police misconduct and racial bias.

The killing of Mr. Floyd by the Minneapolis police in May, and the national upheaval it provoked, loom large over the march, as does the sense among civil rights leaders that action this year could set the course of American race relations for years, if not decades. Protests have continued this week in Kenosha, Wis., after a white police officer shot a Black man in the back several times.

“We can’t ignore the moment that we’re in,” said Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which also is sponsoring the protest. “This is a march that is very much needed right now, given the fires that are raging as we deal with police violence, racial violence and voter suppression. It’s created almost a perfect storm.”

Among those scheduled to speak were Ms. Clarke and Mr. Morial, as well as family members representing Mr. Floyd; Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician killed in March in a raid by police officers in Louisville, Ky.; and Eric Garner, who died after being held in a chokehold by the police in New York City in 2014. The speeches will be followed by a march from the Lincoln Memorial to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Mall.

The event is being livestreamed by the N.A.A.C.P., another sponsor, and covered on cable by BET. It is accompanied by a so-called virtual march conducted online.

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