Crowd Defies Gray Weather For Anniversary Of 1963 March

President Obama's speech capped a day of festivities in Washington, D.C. that began with a march across the National Mall. That's where thousands gathered against a backdrop of tight security and rainy weather. On the white marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial, national leaders took turns addressing the crowd.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, that speech from the president was the centerpiece on a day of festivities here in Washington, D.C. It all began with a march across the National Mall, where thousands gathered against a backdrop of tight security and gray weather.

NPR's Hansi Lo Wang was in the crowd.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing) We don't need no music, hey, hey. We've got so much more...

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: So much more came from a youthful chorus of students from Alabama State University. They helped lead the march from the steps of Georgetown University's law school, arm-in-arm with original marchers from the 1963 March on Washington, including Mary Jane Flowers Thomas of Atlanta, Ga.

MARY JANE FLOWERS THOMAS: Dr. King never knew our names; John Lewis never knew our names - just too many of us. But we had our purpose.

WANG: Thomas was 19 when she arrived in Washington, D.C., that Wednesday morning in 1963, just one of more than a quarter-million Americans who gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial. She spent five days and five nights behind bars, for asking to stay in a whites-only establishment as part of a sit-in. And she was released just days before the march.

THOMAS: I was wearing a red-and-white top that I used as a part of the initiation process for my sorority five days after I came out of the Savannah jail.

WANG: Today, the retired high school economics teacher calls herself one of many foot soldiers of the civil rights movement against racism - a problem that's still out there in 2013, said 19-year-old Tyronn Spriggs, a junior at historically black Alabama State University. It's just not as obvious as segregated lunch counters and water fountains.

TYRONN SPRIGGS: I think that it just got swiped under the rug, and it's just hiding. And it's going to come out, eventually.

CAROL DALE: We all think we've come a long way, but we all lock our doors if we're in a black neighborhood. If you go on a bus and you have choices of seats, most white people will sit with a white person. It's just - saying "I have black friends" isn't enough.

WANG: Carol Dale of Fenwick Island, Del., who is white and 64, says she's hopeful that there will be less racial discrimination among younger generations. It's optimism that's shared by 53-year-old Ron Wims, who drove from Virginia Beach to D.C. with his wife, prepared with umbrellas and a full backpack.

What did you bring today?

RON WIMS: Water. (Laughing)

WANG: How much water?

WIMS: About a gallon.

WANG: On Wednesday, water came from off-and-on drizzles and stretches of steady rain over the National Mall. Sixty-six-year-old Julie Woodward, of New York City, braved the elements to wait in line for almost two hours to enter the main viewing area in front of the Lincoln Memorial, before giving up after confronting hefty security.

JULIE WOODWARD: We were down in the midst of that mess there. You see the white tents there? That's all those people who are on security lines, to have their bags checked.

WANG: Long lines that included a few attendees who fell ill, some of dehydration and heat exhaustion. Medical response arrived, and uniformed soldiers later passed out free water bottles. On the white marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial, national leaders took turns addressing the crowd. They spoke from the same spot where Martin Luther King Jr. declared his dream 50 years ago. Among the speakers was congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, one of the original speakers in 1963.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Fifty years later, we can ride anywhere we want to ride. We can stay where we want to stay. Those signs that said white and colored are gone. And you won't see them anymore.

WANG: Except in a museum, a book or a video, Lewis said to applause from the crowd. The lineup at the podium also included members of Martin Luther King Jr.'s family, plus Oprah Winfrey and former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. The speaker that moved Renee Suddereth of Atlanta, Ga., the most was President Barack Obama.

RENEE SUDDERETH: Well, if you could see me right now, you see my eyes are watery. I am so touched. President Obama would not have been able to deliver that speech, and be in the White House, if it was not for God and Martin Luther King and the people marching here, 50 years ago today.

WANG: And, Suddereth said, we still got work to do.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Hansi Lo Wang covers race, ethnicity and culture for NPR's Code Switch team.

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