WASHINGTON – Anthem resident Pamela Gardner was just 4 years old when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I Have a Dream” Speech, but it still had an effect on her.
“As a child I always cried when I read or heard that speech,” said Gardner, who joined thousands Wednesday on the National Mall to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington where King gave that speech.
They waited in long, slow-moving security lines to get a spot near the Lincoln Memorial to listen to hours of speeches and songs, capped off by a speech by President Barack Obama.
Despite intermittent rain and steamy Washington humidity, spirits appeared high with some joking about being “drenched for the dream” as they waited for an airport-like security check, complete with metal detectors.
Medical personnel occasionally had to part the crowd in order to retrieve someone who had fainted or had another emergency.
Fifty years later, tens of thousands gathered Wednesday around the Reflecting Pool to hear Obama, former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and others praise the successes of the past but lay out the problems that remain.
The three presidents, in particular, pointed to the need for greater voting rights, the disproportionately high number of blacks in prison and high rates of unemployment among minorities.
The crowd was receptive to Carter and Clinton, but the energy was especially high for Obama.
“Give it to ‘em, Mr. President!” one woman shouted from the crowd during a pause in Obama’s speech.
Tucson resident Emma Willerton, a recent University of Arizona who just started school in Washington, said she was excited to hear the president speak.
“Obama being president at the same time as the 50th anniversary is … a huge, powerful statement of progress,” Willerton said of the nation’s first black president.
Wednesday’s events started with an interfaith service at a Baptist church in Washington and a 1.6-mile march down Constitution Avenue to the Lincoln Memorial.
Willerton, who took part in the march, called it an honor to be a part of a historic event.
At the Lincoln Memorial, fences had been set up around the Reflecting Pool with speakers and video screens set up for those who could not get close. Not everyone could even get in: Many watched from a distance, sitting by the Washington Monument several blocks east of the ceremony.
“I wanted to experience what the original marchers felt,” said Gardner, adding that Wednesday’s unpleasant weather made her respect her predecessors even more.
“I was in jeans and a T-shirt and it was so hot,” Gardner said. “I was thinking back then, the woman had on dresses and hats. I could not imagine the discomfort.”
But she said it was worth it, despite the humidity and heat, to be apart of history.
Tom Rose, a Phoenix resident, was in Maryland for a conference and came to be part of Wednesday?s events.
“I wanted to honor what his (King’s) dream was, and see where we need to go from here,” Rose said.
He said he believes there is a lot this country, and his home state, can still learn from King and from what was said Wednesday.
“I think the people of Arizona can take something from these messages,” Rose said.
Ray Cullom, a National Park Service volunteeer working Wednesday at the nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, said he does not believe the dream that King spoke about is yet a reality.
“We’ve come along way, but we still have a ways to go,” Cullom said.
He and his wife, Maribeth, have volunteered at national parks across the country, including a season spent at the Tonto National Monument near Roosevelt, Ariz.
Cullom, who is white, remembers going to college in New Orleans during the Civil Rights era and seeing protests around the city. He remembered once getting on a crowded streetcar where all the white people were standing up because group of black riders were in every other seat.
He said he got some stares from the other white riders when he sat down, but was happy to get a seat.
Gardner said there is still work to be done.
“You can’t be afraid of different people and different beliefs,” she said. “When you are afraid you have hatred.”
- Cronkite News Service reporters Chad Garland and Jack Fitzpatrick contributed to this report.