Fifty years ago, when a quarter of a million people gathered on the Washington Mall for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was a leading force in convening the rally, one of the largest, most successful, peaceful civil-rights demonstrations of all time, and the organization’s president, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
On Saturday, a reinvigorated SCLC will celebrate the 50th anniversary with a re-enactment of the March on Washington. It is part of the organization’s 55th Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., Aug. 23 – 26, at the Grand Hyatt and Capitol Hilton hotels. This year’s convention theme is: “Moving Together, Moving Forward: Jobs and Freedom.”
“We are coming back after 50 years to evaluate our civil-rights victories and project our future,” says Dr. C.T. Vivian, the SCLC president who has been chosen to receive the Presidential Medal of Honor this year. “What we will be projecting is how we do what Martin King wrote in his last book and that is to end racism, poverty and war. Martin King’s victories were based on nonviolent direct action, and we have not given that strategy enough use since we left 50 years ago.”
Dr. Charles Steele Jr., president emeritus/CEO SCLC, said the march would emphasize the organization’s desire to continue to address poverty and inequity.
“Dr. King advocated for poor folk,” said Dr. Steele. “No one is picking up that battle. We are here to advocate for poor people in the United States of America. The check was marked insufficient funds 50 years ago. We want the check made out for poor folk that will clear the bank.”
Steele, who was national president from 2004 to 2009, returned last year in his new role to revive and reorganize the organization founded in 1957 by a cadre of primarily black southern leaders. Today’s leaders “must start with a commitment of what they are going to do for poor people,” he said.
Little has changed in the last half century in addressing the issues of poverty, he added.
“It’s still the same,” he said. “We are here to create jobs and build relationships with corporate America to create jobs, as well as fight for justice and freedom for our people.”
“We became complacent, rather than making sure that the system does right,” Steele added. “You have to make the system do it.”
SCLC is a co-organizer of the re-enactment Saturday Aug. 24, along with the King Center of Atlanta, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
The march will be preceded by an informal program from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. at the Lincoln Memorial and formal program from 10 a.m. to 12:30, when the march steps off. Marchers will proceed from the Lincoln Memorial on the mall to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, although the exact route has not been determined. Organizers estimate that 250,000 people will participate.
The march will provide an opportunity for Americans to stand with one of the nation’s leading civil-rights organizations, said Demark Liggins, the chief financial officer of SCLC.
“You don’t get a lot of opportunities in America in which your presence means a lot,” he said.”I think it is important to stand with us as we are in D.C. to let the nation and the world know that civil rights is still important and that battles are still being fought every day.”
The convention will feature town-hall forums, concerts, panel discussions and workshops, beginning Friday, with leading scholars, activists, corporate and non-profit executives and others. It also will have an international peace summit that will attract peace-builders from around the world, Dr. Steele said.
Marion Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, will be the main speaker at the Leadership and Legacy Awards Gala during the conference on Monday, August 26, at the Capitol Hilton. Cheryl Pearson-McNeil, senior vice president of public affairs and government relations for Nielsen, will be the mistress of ceremonies. Dr. Vivian will deliver the closing remarks.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr., founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, will moderate a town hall meeting on Race and Poverty town hall forum on Friday, Aug. 23 at 4 p.m. and will participate in a town hall on the Voting Rights Act at 5:30 p.m.
“For a while, SCLC had not been fully engaged in mainline conversations regarding race, poverty, around voting rights and around mobilization,” said Damien Conners, executive director of SCLC, who at age 28 is one of the organization’s young dynamic leaders. “We have Dr. Steele back, who has been very helpful in ensuring increased visibility but also making sure we have the financial footing to do the deeply imperative work communities expect of us. We are positioning ourselves to more thoroughly engage the community, engage organizations that are already doing the work and those generally interested and concerned about rights and justices issues.”
Conners said a lot of the focus of the convention would be on young people through the town hall forums and workshops.
“We are having conversations about the issues that young people are concerned about, primarily around justice issues and voting rights,” he said. “We are preparing to engage young people and continue the conversation after the march is over… with new-age mobilization tools, whether it be Instagram, or Twitter, or Facebook? We really want to begin conversation and subsist as a relevant ear to the needs and desire of those on the margins.”
A workshop on “Kingian Nonviolence” techniques also is targeted to young people. It is Friday, Aug. 23 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“Our current leadership does not have the training that the former generation had,” said Conners. “How do we transfer those principles, those ideas, about how to conduct oneself to be nonviolent effectively in the pursuit toward justice?’