Thousands converged on the nation’s capital Saturday to demand the protection of voting rights, walking in the footsteps of the 250,000 people who marched in the historic March on Washington 58 years before.
As part of March On for Voting Rights, civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King III, Arndrea Waters King and the Rev. Al Sharpton, were leading marches in Washington, D.C., Houston, Miami, Phoenix and more than 40 other cities.
In D.C., Sharpton, King and Rep. Al Green of Texas carried the leading banner with the words “Protect Your Power” as thousands marched more than 12 blocks between McPherson Square and the National Mall.
“What do we want? Voting rights! When do we want them? Now!” they chanted, braving heat of up to 90 degrees.
Many carried posters emblazoned with slogans such as “Our voice, our vote matter” and “Protect voting rights.” Volunteers supplied water and masks. Others sold shirts and buttons.
For Janice Clark, 58, the issue of the day was simple: addressing voting rights. Clark, of Cheverly, Maryland, expressed frustration that the need for protests against racism and for voting rights continues to grow.
“It’s really ridiculous,” Clark said. “We end up doing the same thing all over again.”
While the rally centered around voting rights, groups brought posters and banners on a variety of issues, including police brutality, worker’s rights, Black Lives Matter, and reparations.
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Jake Mason of Clarksburg, Maryland, said while voting rights is a critical issue, it’s not separate from topics of race and discrimination.
“The basic premise of America is the right to vote, and it’s stunning that for people, power is more important than basic rights,” Mason, a 49-year-old financial planner, said.
Speakers for the D.C. event included Rep. Joyce Beatty, the Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; Philonise Floyd, an activist and George Floyd’s brother; high-profile civil rights attorney Ben Crump; and other politicians and civil rights leaders.
“This nation has a moral obligation to make sure that every citizen has full voting rights,” said NAACP President Derrick Johnson. “Anything short of that is a true threat to our democracy.”
Meanwhile, about a thousand more people loosely gathered near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for the Make Good Trouble Rally in Washington, D.C. on the 58th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.
Among the group’s demands are action on voting rights legislation currently stalled in Congress, an end to the Senate filibuster rule and movement on a range of issues including police reform, infrastructure, healthcare and the environment.
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, one of the main sponsors of the rally, called it a “defining moment in the political history of this nation.”
Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter said the nationwide rallies follow in the footsteps of the direct action and civil disobedience strategies King used.
“Part of what gives us hope is that we’ve been here before, and we won,” Albright said.
Brown added many of the demands of the original March of Washington have yet to be addressed, including more protections for voting rights.
“It’s not just about lifting up the legacy of what happened 58 years ago,” Brown said. “America has unfinished business.”
Rev. William J. Barber, a Protestant minister and the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, told the crowd that action from Congress on voting rights was necessary to bring about a “moral revival” in the U.S. and called for an end to the Senate filibuster to pass voting rights.
Rep. Cori Bush said voter suppression, especially that affecting Black voters, allowed President Donald Trump to “stack” the Supreme Court “so unfairly against our communities.”
“To be clear, suppression of black votes is the perpetuation of white supremacist violence,” she told the crowd.
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“These bills are incredibly essential to ensure that we have access to the ballot,” said Stasha Rhodes, campaign manager of 51 for 51, an advocacy group for Washington, D.C., statehood and one of the march’s organizers.
The marches oppose almost 400 bills in 48 states that organizers say “amount to shameful, outright voter suppression,” according to the event website.
At least six bills in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky and Oklahoma shorten windows to apply for mail-in ballots, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy nonprofit that tracks voter suppression legislation. Bills in Iowa and Montana call for reducing polling place availability. Georgia and Iowa bills seek to limit voting days and hours. Other bills, many of which have already been signed into law, ban ballot drop boxes and mail-in voting, impose harsher voter ID requirements and prohibit giving water to voters in line. Advocates say these efforts target Black voters and other voters of color, who have faced voter suppression throughout U.S. history.
“There’s relics of the Jim Crow past that we see in these laws and its efforts to prevent the voter turnout of Black and brown communities,” Rhodes said.
Johnson, president of the NAACP, urged protesters to spend time reflecting on the work of civil rights leaders of the past and to know that the fight for voting rights is not a new battle. He added that marching is not the final step in creating change and that attendees should also contact their local representatives and organize within their own communities.
“Freedom is a constant struggle,” he said. “We have to protect it. We need to speak loudly, in unison, just like those before us did.”