WASHINGTON (CN) — From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice rang out in a clarion call for justice 57 years ago, Breonna Taylor’s mother heard tens of thousands gathered around the reflecting pool cry out her daughter’s name in thundering unison Friday.
In small parks and beneath lush trees, in blazing sun or gathered under patches of shade, throngs of demonstrators showed solidarity with Tamika Palmer – the mother of the 26-year-old Black woman shot eight times by Louisville police as she slept – who spoke from the memorial’s steps.
She was surrounded closely by March on Washington organizers and keynote speakers including Martin Luther King III, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and a host of veteran civil rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers like Texas U.S. Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green, Ohio Representative Joyce Beatty.
Sharpton called out a constant refrain heard at protests which have sustained throughout the United States for months.
“Say her name,” Sharpton said to chants of “Breonna Taylor” reverberating back.
Palmer expressed gratitude as well as a message echoing one offered before by Martin Luther King Jr. from the same spot in 1963, just five short years before the civil rights leader was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
“What we need is change, and we’re at the point to get that change, but we have to stand together,” Palmer said.
The March on Washington anniversary protest – nicknamed the “Get Your Knees Off Our Neck” march, in reference to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis – comes during a moment of heightened national economic and emotional fragility similar to the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
When Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, came to the podium Friday, he was overwhelmed with emotion.
Another chant, this time of his brother’s name, rang out for nearly 30 seconds while he paused to gather his composure.
Surrounded by family, Philonise Floyd wore a mask and shirt depicting a heart monitor flatline superimposed over 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the amount of time Minnesota Police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the 46-year-old’s neck before he died on Memorial Day.
Each family member’s shirt read “Justice for George” and “I Can’t Breathe.”
“I wish George were here to see this right now,” Philonse Floyd said before naming several recent victims of police violence. “That’s who I’m marching for. I’m marching for George. For Breonna. For Ahmad. For Jacob. For Pamela Turner. For Michael Brown. Trayvon and anybody else who lost their life.”
Honoring the past and offering hope for the future, Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of the civil rights icon, spoke for roughly 20 minutes, discussing the need to end discriminatory voter ID requirements and stop attempts by President Donald Trump’s administration from continuing its push to “cutback votes by mail and disenfranchise those who have served their time and paid their debt to society.”
The enduring threat of the Covid-19 pandemic – which has infected over 5 million Americans and killed over 180,000, having a particularly devastating impact on communities of color – has amplified the risk to secure voting this November, King said.
But he said the sacrifices and blood shed by civil rights giants like the late John Lewis – whose eponymous bill, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, now languishes on Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk – or the arrests and beatings endured by those like Fannie Lou Hamer or the Reverend C.T. Vivian means voters today must make an effort to ensure their ballots are cast.
“No person, no people are more keenly aware of the risks of disenfranchisement than those who suffer from. There’s a knee upon the neck of our democracy and our nation can only live so long without oxygen or freedom,” King said.
Calling on people to make a plan for themselves and their families, neighbors and employers for Election Day, he added to resounding applause from the thousands before him: “If our forefathers were willing to die for the right to vote, we can work for the right to vote.”
Before flying to Washington from Houston to introduce King on Friday, Congressman Al Green shared his reflections with Courthouse News on how he would warm up Friday’s crowd.
Both King and his father marched for a living wage and against police misconduct, but America should have heeded the civil rights leader’s warning when he said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Green reflected.
“My thoughts have been about his father and what his father came to Washington for and demanded 57 years ago and now we have his son, standing there in Washington, D.C., making demands,” he said. “Which says that although a lot has changed … some things still remain the same.”
The shooting of Jacob Blake – a 29-year-old Black man shot seven times in the back by Kenosha Police Officer Rusten Sheskey, a white man, on Sunday – has catalyzed protests in Wisconsin that have been met with violence, not unlike the late Congressman Lewis’ 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in defense of Black voting rights.
Like a dying sun, Green said, white supremacy and other inhibitors to change were the fiercest before they were extinguished.
“A star as it reaches the end of its existence, it emits all of its force, it gets extremely bright and then it goes dark,” Green said. “There is this movement among those whose white privilege is an advantage, to do all that they can to hold onto it: change the voting rights law, change the way that the postal office delivers ballots, do everything that you can to hold onto this privilege. But that’s just an indication that they’re getting much closer to the end of their advantage that they have by being beneficiaries of white privilege.”
But against that force a greater, undeniable one will blow across the National Mall and eventually the nation, he said.
“Today I can sense, and I believe the people in this country can sense, the inescapable winds of inevitable change,” Green said. “This was the case when Dr. King from 57 years ago led the March on Washington. There was this huge movement for change.”
He added, “So today we are again seeing the inescapable winds of inevitable change and they’re sweeping across the country in ways that we can see. You can see it in the sense that the status quo is being challenged as it has never been challenged before.”