U.S. Reflects on Anniversary of Martin Luther King March
The United States reflects on one of the turning points of its recent history starting this weekend when it marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's March on Washington.
Some 150,000 are expected Saturday on the National Mall to re-enact the moving civil rights rally where King delivered his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech from the Lincoln Memorial.
Then on Wednesday, the anniversary, church bells will peal across America while President Barack Obama, the first African American in the White House, will speak from the same steps.
Many other events are planned around the country, giving Americans a chance to reflect on how far they have come in terms of race relations -- and how far they still have to go.
"I have always stated that we have made great progress in this country, but to blindly believe that our work is over is foolish and naive at best," said civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton, a co-organizer of Saturday's event.
"If this year has shown us anything, it's that the work of the 1963 march is not yet finished," added Benjamin Jealous, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), one of America's oldest civil rights organizations.
"Voting rights are under attack, black unemployment continues to soar and thousands of black children are living in impoverished neighborhoods and attending segregated schools ... black youth are being gunned down each and every day in senseless acts of violence."
An estimated 250,000 people of all races descended on the Mall on a sweltering August 28, 1963 day, chanting "Equality now!" and singing "We Shall Overcome," in what was officially billed as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Millions more watched on television -- among them President John F. Kennedy, who until then had been dragging his feet on legislation to end racial segregation in conservative Southern states.
King, 34, was the last speaker of the day.
Departing from his prepared text, he famously declared: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal'."
Within three months, Kennedy would be assassinated, and King himself cut down by a sniper in Memphis, Tennessee in April 1968.
But the march helped set the stage for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed major forms of racial discrimination, followed a year later by the Voting Rights Act designed to guarantee the franchise for all black U.S. citizens.
The future of that law has been called into question after the U.S. Supreme Court told Congress earlier this year to rewrite a key section regarding federal oversight of voting practices in mainly Southern states.
African Americans, who make up 14.2 percent of the overall population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, meanwhile still lag in socioeconomic terms, despite the growth of a black middle class.
Their 12.6 percent seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in July was double the national figure, and the median income of a black household is two-thirds that of the earnings of the average U.S. household.
On the other hand, the poverty rate for blacks has fallen over a half-century from 41.8 percent to 27.6 percent -- still much higher that the national rate for all races at around 15 percent.
The National Park Service, which oversees the National Mall, has issued a permit for 150,000 people for Saturday's re-enactment of the March on Washington, which organizers are calling a National Action to Reclaim the Dream.
King's son Martin Luther King III is among the participants, along with Sharpton, Attorney General Eric Holder and the family of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, killed last year by a Neighborhood Watch volunteer who was later acquitted of murder.
Next Wednesday's event, known as the March for Jobs and Justice, is to include former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter as well as Obama, who some critics say has failed to make full use of his position to correct some of the lingering wrongs of a country where race is still very much a divisive issue.