Members of Congress gathered in Statuary Hall of the United States Capitol on Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who as a young activist had delivered a keynote speech at the march, addressed his colleagues Wednesday, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., used the occasion to criticize the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the Voting Rights Act .
“When I look back on August 28, 1963, the day of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I see it as one of this nation’s finest hours,” Lewis said. “The American people pushed and pulled, they struggled, suffered, and some even died, to demonstrate their desire to see a more fair, more just society.”
Lewis, who received multiple standing ovations during Wednesday’s celebration, recalled the day of the march, before King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
“[King] was the last speaker, but I was number six,” Lewis said at the event. “I was the young upstart who said, ‘We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages at all.’”
The congressman also commented on what has become of King’s “dream” in the past five decades.
“Fifty years later, those of us who are committed to the cause of justice need to pace ourselves because our struggle does not last for one day, one week or one year, but it is the struggle of a lifetime, and each generation must do its part,” Lewis said. “There will be progress, but there will also be setbacks. We must continue to have hope and be steeled in our faith that this nation will one day become a truly multiracial democracy.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Reid also spoke at the ceremony. While all four thanked Lewis and other Civil Rights leaders for their work, Reid’s speech for the ceremony took a more political turn when he commented on the recent Voting Rights decision from the Supreme Court.
“Dr. King was right when he said we should not rest until we feel the waters of justice roll down around us. Well, they haven’t rolled down enough,” Reid said. “Fifty years later, some of the progress made by the Civil Rights movement and some of the freedoms protected by the Voting Rights Act are once again under siege. Since the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down portions of the Voting Rights Act, states once again are free to erect barriers to discourage American citizens from exercising one of the most fundamental rights: the right to vote, without intimidation or obstruction.”
Reid, along with McConnell and Pelosi, attended the march 50 years ago, although none were close enough to hear Lewis’ or King’s speech.
“For one sympathetic college student from the University of Louisville, I’ll tell you: It’s something I’ll never forget,” McConnell said. “I couldn’t hear much from the Capitol steps that day, but the crowd and the energy told its own story: that thousands of Americans were ready to meet the moment. Not just to dream of a better future for themselves, but to fight for a better future for their children.”
The actual anniversary of the March will be Aug. 28, during the Congress’ summer recess. After they return on Monday, Sept. 9, Lewis will continue a series of congressional hearings to restore “the heart and soul” of the Voting Rights legislation.
“Let’s continue the work that has already begun to build a beloved community, a nation and a world community at peace with itself, that values the dignity and the worth of every citizen and every human being,” Lewis said Wednesday.