By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – One hundred thousand people are expected to converge on the nation’s capitol tomorrow for the 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington. More than 1,000 are expected to come from the greater Philadelphia area.
It was August 28, 1968 when more than 200,000 people stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial for one of the largest demonstrations in America’s history. The group demanded a civil rights bill, laws that guaranteed a right to vote, higher minimum wages and equal, desegregated education. And that gathering of people, standing together seemed to give the civil rights movement the push it needed.
“The visual of seeing that many black people, white people, rich people, poor people come together around jobs and freedom was powerful,” says Pat Coulter, President of the Urban League of Philadelphia. She did not attend the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but huddled with neighbors to watch it on the family television in her hometown in Ohio. “My parents were excited, but there was anxiety around what it would mean. And I remember my father said, ‘well something has to happen now.'”
And something did happen. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 came a year later. Then the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Desegregation orders were enforced. But 50 years later, many of the hard fought rights seem to be whittling away as a key provision of the Voting Rights Act was stricken earlier this year and public education remains in crisis.
“It’s about more than commemorating what happened 50 years ago,” says Coulter. “It’s about the urgency of now and the agenda for economic empowerment and justice.”
Dozens from the Coulter’s Urban League chapter will leave Philadelphia tonight to join their national leaders in Washington for a series of events. She says part of the effort will be to create a new agenda for jobs, education and equality so the country can continue its work to realize Dr. King’s Dream.
“We have a lot to do,” she says.
For Donald “Ducky” Birts, it’s about closing the circle of his activist life.
“I was 27 years old,” says Birts, who became active in the NAACP when he was just 15. “That movement was so grassroots-oriented. You had the unions, you had the churches, you had the moms and pops all putting money together to go down to march. We had over 100 buses.”
He says he took the train to Washington with many other organizers. He says he abandoned his group to get a space at the front of the stage and the feeling was electric.
Birts says he was hypnotized. “It’s like God went through my body. It was like I was baptized.”
Birts will ride one of 11 buses sponsored by the Pennsylvania NAACP on Saturday morning, marking a symbolic end to a life on the front lines of civil rights.
“I’m in my last quarter,” he says, “but I want to say in my lifetime that I went full circle.”
For Bishop Dwayne Royster, the trip to DC is about empowering people.
“We need a participatory democracy, where people are standing for their rights,” says Royster, who is Executive Director of Philadelphia POWER. He is joining a multi-state bus tour with People Empowering Communities through Organizing (or PECO) that will end in Washington, DC on Saturday.
“Philadelphia is in crisis,” he says. “We have an education crisis, we have a poverty crisis. If people were actually taking ownership of the decisions that were being made and not just letting the Mayor and City Council make decisions without being challenged, I think we’d have a very different Philadelphia.”
More than two dozen buses from our area are expected to head to the National Action to Redeem the Dream march and rally at the Lincoln Memorial. Festivities begin at 8 a.m.
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