by Alistair Barr and Greg Toppo , USA TODAY

WASHINGTON - Fifty years to the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a large crowd streamed onto the National Mall and listened as civil rights leaders urged them - sometimes defiantly - to keep fighting for equal rights and justice.

Civil rights leader and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young urged thousands who had returned to the spot to "Pray on, stay on and fight on."

Through on-and-off rain showers that were occasionally heavy, marchers making their way to the Mall waved banners that read, "The new Jim Crow must go" and "50 years later still fighting to vote," sang traditional protest songs and chanted, "Education is our right - education is our fight!"

The 1963 march focused on what Young called "the triple evils of racism, war and poverty," but he said King's speech focused mostly on poverty. "He said that the Constitution was a promissory note to which all of us would fall heir, but that when men and women of color presented their check at the Bank of Justice, it came back marked 'insufficient funds.' "

"Fifty years later," Young concluded, "we're still here trying to cash that bad check. Fifty years later, we're still dealing with all kinds of problems, and so we're not here to claim any victory - we're to simply say that the struggle continues."

Wednesday's march started about 9:10 a.m.Banners and T-shirts and chants focused on the Trayvon Martin verdict and on protecting the Voting Rights Act. Other banners focused on gun control, mass incarceration of African-Americans and equal access to education. Marchers of all ages and races walked the route together, some singing songs such as "We Shall Not Be Moved."

Reginald Gilluno, 39, stood next to a portrait of King made of melted crayons and makeup so that people who are visually impaired could feel the power of the portrait. His mother, Oni Gilluno, 57, was 8 years old in 1963 and acknowledges that much has changed since the first march. But she believes there is still a lot of underlying racism. "A Caucasian person just doesn't get it."

Robin McNair, a teacher at Dupont Park Adventist School in D.C., says she and fellow teachers brought 50 students to the march. "We want them to experience history and be a part of it. Fifty years from now, they will be able to look back and remember this day and say they were there."

Alonza Lawrence, 57, a pastor at the Moore Street Missionary Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., said he drove to Washington Wednesday morning with his sister, Roberta Walker, from Richmond. "I was 7 at the time of the original march. I wanted to be part of the celebration this time. There are so many issues to protest: voting rights, racism, ageism, sexism - many of the 'isms.' The goal of this country is to become a place where all people are treated equally and have a fair chance. We have made strides, but have a long way to go. It's definitely not a level playing field."

James Carter, 62, a retired educator from Hershey, Pa., said he left home at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday with a friend and his local pastor. "I wanted to be part of the march this time. I was too young - 12 - to go in '63."

Carter said the dream of equal rights "has been realized for some, but there appears to be a concerted effort to diminish the dream. It's important to let them know that we won't stand for it. Dr. King wanted a complete America and we don't have that now."

He's concerned about a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating a key part of the Voting Rights Act, passed a year after the original march. "The court took away clauses that allowed the (Justice Department) to address injustice," he says. "Look at North Carolina and Texas, which passed repressive laws (soon after) the Supreme Court decision. To say that everything is OK now is far from the truth."

Wednesday's commemoration culminates a week's worth of events marking the 1963 march, which was organized by civil rights and labor groups. Wednesday's event will feature afternoon speeches by President Obama and former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

The gathering, titled "Let Freedom Ring," is organized by the 50th Anniversary Coalition for Jobs, Justice and Freedom, a group represented by the NAACP, the National Urban League, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other civil rights organizations.

Nearly five hours of speeches and performances are marking the occasion, including appearances by everyone from Oprah Winfrey and Young to Caroline Kennedy, just named by Obama to be ambassador to Japan.

Among the speakers: U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the only surviving speaker from the 1963 march.

Looking back on 50 years of progress on Wednesday, Lewis told a crowd of lawmakers and others in the Capitol Statuary Hall, "We've come a distance since that day, but many of the issues that gave rise to that march are still present needs in our society today: violence, poverty, hunger, long-term unemployment, homelessness, voting rights and the need to protect human dignity. We have come a great distance, but we are not finished yet."

Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, struck a more defiant tone, telling the Mall crowd, "It is time to step it up and get busy."

Campbell said racism is alive and well in the USA. She compared recent setbacks in voting rights to Ku Klux Klan efforts to intimidate blacks into not voting.

"There are no white sheets, but there are judges in black robes in the U.S. Supreme Court who struck down Section IV of the Voting Rights Act, opening the floodgates in many states to pass more voter I.D. laws to block people of color and young people from voting, with the goal of ensuring we never see another black man elected President - or woman - of the United States of America."

Obama is well-versed in talking about race but does so rarely. As the nation's first African-American president, he has used his own improbable story as evidence of how far the nation has come. Even before he was elected president, then-Sen. Obama in 2007 told worshipers at the historic Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, Ala., "I'm here because somebody marched. I'm here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants."

In office, he has only occasionally talked about race. Perhaps most significantly, in 2012 he commented on the Trayvon Martin shooting in Sanford, Fla., saying of the young African-American who died, "You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. All of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves."

King hadn't originally planned the "I have a dream" rhetoric that gave the occasion its historic significance. In the moment, Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian Taylor Branch recently told USA Weekend, King improvised the passage in a speech that had begun more cynically, with the memorable line, "America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.' "

Branch said King then "balked" at his prepared conclusion, improvising the ending that galvanized the civil rights moment during one of its most pivotal years. Branch said Obama "should speak more from his tiptoe stance about race in our national journey."

International commemorations will be held at London's Trafalgar Square, as well as in Japan, Switzerland, Nepal and Liberia. London Mayor Boris Johnson has said King's speech resonates around the world and continues to inspire people as one of history's great pieces of oratory.

As King was ending his speech in 1963, he quoted from the patriotic song My Country 'Tis of Thee and urged his audience to "let freedom ring."

"When we allow freedom to ring - when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last, great God almighty, we are free at last,'" King said.

The civil rights leader was assassinated five years later.

Contributing: Donna Leinwand, Aamer Madhani and Eliza Collins, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

Copyright 2013

Read or Share this story: