By Mike Lillis - 08/24/13 10:00 AM EDT
Organizers say as many as 100,000 people will descend on the National Mall Saturday as a week of commemorations begin for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
Rally organizers have warned that a long list of recent events threaten to undo the progress made over the last half-century and return the country to the very climate of open discrimination that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. railed against 50 years ago.
Speakers on Saturday are expected to use the platform to urge the restoration of the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court gutted in June, and repeal state stand-your-ground laws, which played a role in the Trayvon Martin case.
“You're going to hear them say that a lot of these issues, for whatever reason, we're still facing 50 years later,” Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) spokeswoman Ayofemi Kirby said Friday.
The event is spearheaded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, and Martin Luther King, III, and is set to include a list of Democratic speakers perched at the Lincoln Memorial, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), CBC Chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the only surviving leader from the 1963 march.
Speakers are expected to urge Congress to get more aggressive in tackling issues like income inequality, racial profiling, gun violence, health disparities and voter discrimination.
“There's been a lot of progress, but the work isn't finished,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “So we want to use the moment to dedicate ourselves to [King's message].”
Fifty years after the March in Washington, economic statistics point to enormous inequalities along racial lines in the United States despite the election of the nation’s first black president.
Gaping disparities between blacks and whites exist when it comes to unemployment rates (12.6 versus 6.6 percent in July, according to the Labor Department); life expectancy (75 versus 79 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention); median family wealth ($4,900 versus $97,000, according to the Economic Policy Institute); and incarceration rates (blacks are 13 percent of the population, but represent 38 percent of inmates in federal and state prisons, according to the Sentencing Project).
Saturday's gathering will act as something of an introduction to the Aug. 28 ceremony commemorating the official anniversary of the March on Washington. Wednesday's event, also taking place at the Lincoln Memorial, will feature addresses by Lewis and former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton before culminating in a speech by Obama, the nation's first black president.
The National Action Network estimates that 100,000 people will gather on the Mall for Saturday's event. The U.S. Park Police does not publicize attendance estimates, but spokesman Paul Brooks said Friday that the group is preparing a “full-force commitment” both Saturday and Wednesday.
Beyond civil rights issues, Saturday’s podium will feature a number of other liberal causes.
Planned Parenthood's Alexis McGill Johnson, for instance, will likely highlight the importance of universal access to affordable healthcare. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, can be expected to call for broad education improvements. Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, will use the platform to promote comprehensive immigration reform, one of the top priorities of President Obama's second term. And the list goes on.
Saturday's march — organized by Sharpton — is expected to be much more partisan than the Wednesday ceremony, but no GOP leaders are planning to participate at either event.
Instead, Republicans held a 50th anniversary ceremony in the Capitol on July 31, just before Congress left town for August recess.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is “unable to attend,” his office said Friday, without offering details. Rep. Kevin McCarty (R-Calif.), the Republican whip, will be in California on Wednesday, his office said. And Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House Majority Leader, has "pre-scheduled events outside of Washington" that will keep him from participating, according to his office.
Cantor, who had visited Selma, Ala., with Lewis earlier in the year, described the experience this week as "a very moving moment and a stark reminder that our country must never forget its past."
“As we reflect upon the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington,” Cantor said Friday in an email, “we should all rededicate ourselves to ensuring equality for every American.”