New Activists Harness Memory Of 1963 March On Washington

Events commemorating the March on Washington started Wednesday evening, and got under way in earnest on Thursday.

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Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. made his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. A number of events are being held to commemorate the occasion. There's a march and rally this Saturday, and President Obama will speak at the Lincoln Memorial next Wednesday to mark the actual anniversary. NPR's Allison Keyes talked with some young people to get their views of the civil rights movement then and now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT A MIGHTY GOD WE SERVE")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) What a mighty God...

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: A multi-cultural crowd streamed into a Washington, D.C. church last night as sunset blazed through the stained glass windows. People like William Leon Ward came for a praise and worship service, addressing issues ranging from immigration to racial reconciliation. And he says...

WILLIAM LEON WARD: If we don't continue it, then that legacy will be lost.

KEYES: Ward's mother marched as a high school student in Birmingham, Alabama, and was bitten by dogs used against the non-violent demonstrators. He wants to be part of what he sees as an ongoing battle.

WARD: It means something so tremendous for my family, my nieces and nephews, the folks that's beyond me. It's so important.

AUSTIN THOMPSON: This weekend is an opportunity for us to be in the same space as our elders.

KEYES: Austin Thompson, millennial coordinator for the Service Employees International Union, is among a host of young people here, meeting and dealing with the issues confronting them in the next 50 years.

THOMPSON: Everything from Stand Your Ground-type laws that we've seen in Florida with the Zimmerman verdict to the attack on living wages where fast food workers have been trying to get that raise. And, of course, who can forget the attack on voting rights?

KEYES: Terence Muhammad, the North Carolina based logistics coordinator for the Hip Hop Caucus, explains.

TERENCE MUHAMMAD: It's very important that young people be a part of the march and not just sitting on the sidelines, but integral part in the march today.

KEYES: Muhammad says the numbers of young folk who took to social media and the streets in the wake of the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case show they are engaged. But he notes, in 2013, leaders of the movement are global and don't represent a particular organization as they did in the time of the big six of top civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Thompson adds this is a special moment in the civil rights struggle.

THOMPSON: Now our bench is so deep. We've got so many leaders, diverse leaders, women at the forefront. And so for us it's, I think, about a new interdependent leadership model where there's many, many different leaders arising.

KEYES: For young people, both say leadership is crucial if they look forward to the next 50 years and consider what kind of nation they want to live in. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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