WASHINGTON -- Fifty years ago, Shirley Johnson traveled 18 hours by bus with her father and sister from Jackson, Miss., carrying a foil-lined shoebox filled with fried chicken, chips and pound cake that her mother had packed for the journey.
She was 16 at the time and vividly remembered the scene on the National Mall and the preacher who spoke of the promise of tomorrow.
Saturday, the Miami-Dade educator — now 67 — revisited that spot, this time with her 39-year-old daughter Ebony, her 13-year-old grandson Jayson and a Haitian-American friend, Francis Francoise, whom she mentored as a child and is following in her footsteps, earning a doctorate in education.
Johnson was touched by the pioneers of the movement, people like Myrlie Evers, the wife of murdered civil rights activist Medgar Evers. “[Myrlie] is 80 years old and still was powerful as ever.’’
Johnson and the others were among tens of thousands of people, including hundreds from South Florida, who marched to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and down the National Mall on Saturday, commemorating the 50th anniversary of King’s famous speech and pledging that his dream includes equality for gays, Latinos, the poor and the disabled.
The event was an homage to a generation of activists that endured fire hoses, police abuse and indignities to demand equality for African Americans. But there was a strong theme of unfinished business.
“This is not the time for nostalgic commemoration,” said Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of the slain civil rights leader. "Nor is this the time for self-congratulatory celebration. The task is not done. The journey is not complete. We can and we must do more."
Listening to Martin Luther King III talk about his father brought tears to Johnson’s eyes.
"When he used some of the same words that his father used that day, it was a precious moment for me. It rolled through my soul.’’
And she was encouraged to see all the young people, black, whites, Latinos, Asians. Her dad, who worked with Medgar Evers in Mississippi, would have been pleased, she noted.
"My dad, Medgar, all those people in my life, they have to be proud, they have to be shouting, ‘Alleluia,’’ No, we’re still not finished, but we have these young folks in this fight.’’
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the only surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington, railed against a recent Supreme Court decision that effectively erased a key anti-discrimination provision of the Voting Rights Act. Lewis was a leader of a 1965 march, where police beat and gassed marchers who demanded access to voting booths.
"I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Ala., for the right to vote," he said. "I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us. You cannot stand by. You cannot sit down. You’ve got to stand up. Speak up, speak out and get in the way."
Marchers began arriving early Saturday, many staking out their spots as the sun rose in a clear sky over the Capitol. By midday, tens of thousands had gathered on the National Mall.
There were plenty of South Floridians taking part.
Marching with friends, Tsitsi Wakhisi, a University of Miami School of Communication associate professor, described the day as “inspiring and motivating.”