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.’’
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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.”
“It’s all so very meaningful,” said Wakhisi, who said she was surrounded by marchers wearing shirts who said they had taken part in the ‘63 march.
She was among hundreds of people from South Florida who traveled by air, car and bus to participate in Saturday’s march.
On Friday, nearly 60 people boarded a bus outside the New Way Fellowship Baptist Church on Northwest 22nd Avenue in Miami Gardens to join the tens of thousands of other marchers from across the nation. The bus trip was organized by the Miami-Dade NAACP branch.
“It’s just an amazing sight to see being here in Washington,” said Treska Rodgers, of North Kendall, who rode the NAACP bus with three generations of her South Florida family.
“It’s given me a better understanding of what had happened 50 years ago,” she said as she heard speakers talk about justice and human rights. “Hearing someone describe what happened 50 years ago is one thing, but now I feel a connection to it all.”
Speakers on Saturday frequently mentioned persistent high unemployment among blacks, which is about twice that of white Americans, and other issues.
Among those issues was this summer’s acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Miami Gardens teen Trayvon Martin. Along the Mall, Martin’s picture was nearly as ubiquitous as King’s.
"It’s very difficult to stomach the fact that Trayvon wasn’t committing any crime. He was on his way home from the store," Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother told reporters on Friday. "Don’t wait until it’s at your front door. Don’t wait until something happens to your child. ... This is the time to act now. This is the time to get involved."
Those in attendance on Saturday arrived in a post-9/11 Washington that was very different from the one civil rights leaders visited in 1963.
Then, people crowded the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and could get close to King to hear his speech. On Saturday, metal barriers kept people away from the reflecting pool.
Only a small group of attendees was allowed near the memorial. Everyone else had been pushed back and watched and listened to the speeches on big-screen televisions. Police were stationed atop the Lincoln Memorial. There was a media area and VIP seating.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama will speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the same place King stood when he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. Obama will be joined by former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Churches and groups have been asked to ring bells at 3 p.m., marking the exact time King spoke.
Miami Herald editor Sergio R. Bustos contributed to this report.