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Sixty years after the March on Washington, attendees renew the call for King’s ‘dream’

Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. As the country awaits a Supreme Court decision on whether one of those laws, the Voting Rights Act, will be reinforced or further eroded, a small, vanishing group who lived at the epicenter of the struggle for voting rights six decades ago is reflecting on the times and their struggles, and why it was worth it. (AP Photo)

(CNN) — It’s been 60 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but Fatima Cortez Todd says she still remembers the sense of unity she felt standing on the National Mall that day.

“We sat with each other; we sang with each other,” she said. “I felt taken care of. I felt a brother and sisterhood.”

On August 28, 1963, Cortez Todd was among an estimated 250,000 people who rallied for jobs and freedom at the March on Washington.

History has documented how throngs of people gathered near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to hear what would become the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

But some who attended the march tell CNN they can recall more subtle moments that still resonate today. At a time when the country was bitterly divided along racial lines – with segregation still legal – Cortez Todd, now 77, said she clearly remembers the diversity of those gathered on the National Mall.

“It was a melting pot like this country is supposed to be, and that was the best reflection of that possibility,” she said.

Decades later, children who marched, protested and fought during the civil rights movement are now our elders. As the world pauses to mark the 60th anniversary of the march, the children of the movement reflect on the progress the US has made in the fight for civil rights and how far they say the nation still needs need to go.

Fatima Cortez Todd, 77

Cortez Todd was raised in the civil rights movement. Her mom, Marie Witherspoon, was an activist who worked alongside Coretta Scott King.

As a 17-year-old woman of Black, Puerto Rican and Native American heritage, Cortez Todd said she knew going to the march “was something important to do.”

She earned a seat on a Riverdale, New York, bus bound for Washington, DC, by volunteering to help make banners. Sixty years later, she said she remembers the iconic scenes of the day, but it was the moments she experienced in a crowd of strangers, like sharing a sandwich or uniting their voices in song, that left an indelible mark.

She also recalls how A. Philip Randolph, an organizer of the march and a labor rights leader, asked the crowd to pledge “unequivocally and without regard to personal sacrifice, to the achievement of social peace through social justice.”

“We made a pledge that day,” she recalled. “If we had done even those key things, we would not be where we are now.”

Cortez Todd said she feels the country has not lived up to the promises of the march. But her experiences that day taught her an invaluable lesson: “I have to always speak up,” she said.

Edith Lee-Payne, 72

For Edith Lee-Payne, the day of the march was special for a second reason: it also happened to be her 12th birthday. Sixty years later, Lee-Payne said she remembers arriving at the march early so her aunt could volunteer with the Red Cross.

“It was a reflection of America – of what America should be,” she said. “Everybody just getting along…respecting each other. We don’t see that today.”

A photo of Lee-Payne on the mall that day later became one of the iconic images of the march. When it came time for King’s speech, Lee-Payne said she remembers hearing gospel singer and civil rights activist Mahalia Jackson encouraging him to “tell them about the dream.”

Those words would inspire the civil rights leader to improvise much of the second half of his speech, drawing on a refrain he’d used before. It would become one of the great American speeches, “I Have a Dream.”

As he spoke, the mall was so quiet, Lee-Payne recalled, “you could hear a pin drop.”

While progress has undoubtedly been made toward economic equality in the intervening decades, Lee-Payne said she believes efforts to erase Black history and the murder of George Floyd show the country is “not there” on racial equality.

“We’re not there because too many people still don’t want to be,” she said.

It’s important, she said, for the next generation to know their history and be willing to fight to preserve that history and their rights.

Edward Flanagan, 80

Edward Flanagan remembers racing to the National Mall from nearby McLean, Virginia.

“I wanted to do something that could possibly help … marching seemed so little … but I wanted to do something,” Flanagan told CNN.

Then a 20-year-old student at Howard University, Flanagan said he remembers seeing everyone dressed in their “Sunday best.”

“It was an electric atmosphere and environment because of all the people who were there,” Flanagan said, adding that it felt like a “church picnic.”

But decades later, he said he feels the dream King spoke of that day “has yet to be realized.”

“There was, at the time, a hope that this was going to be a watershed, a turning point. It did not happen,” he said.

Flanagan said he feels some of the gains that were made during the civil rights movement have been eroded, particularly after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But he said he remains hopeful that future generations will continue to fight for equality.

“We are still, while in a much better place than we were in ’63, not in the place where one would expect 60 years on,” Flanagan said.

Sarah Davidson, 75

Sarah Davidson said she wanted to attend the march and be part of the fight for civil rights so intensely she told her mother, “If you don’t let me go, I will never forgive you.”

She was 15 at the time, and she said her mother and aunt agreed to let her take a bus from Arkansas with members of her NAACP youth council.

“I felt that my purpose of living, my purpose of being, for being born was being actualized at that march,” she said.

Davidson said she remembers standing in the summer heat and feeling a “spiritual connection” to everyone out there.

Now a substitute teacher for middle school and high school students, she said she often shares her experience at the march with young people and encourages them to get involved in activism early.

“I stepped up when I was as young as you are. … You can make a difference in America and fight for social justice. You can write petitions. You can protest. You were born for a reason. … You were born to make a difference, and it’s inside of you.”

Stephany Gilbert, 77

Stephany Gilbert was raised in a Jewish family that was dedicated to service. With the support of her family, she attended the march as a 17-year-old sophomore at Syracuse University.

She said she remembers how, despite being in a sea of thousands of people, everyone felt like “a big extended family.”

There was a “sense we could do something,” Gilbert said. “You knew that [King] was speaking the truth, that all people really are created equal and should have the same opportunities. Nobody should have a different playing field.”

Although the country has made progress toward achieving King’s “dream,” Gilbert said she feels the United States has “lost civility.”

She also worries about her grandchildren amid a rise in antisemitism and said she fears humanity could destroy itself because “people don’t listen to each other.” As the fight for civil rights continues, she encourages the younger generations to listen to their elders and also each other.

“Find a common ground somewhere that you can start because you can’t just start from opposite ends and yell, it doesn’t work,” she said. “You’ve got to find something to be able to discuss. Talk! It’s a lost art to be able to debate.”

Raúl Yzaguirre, 84

Raúl Yzaguirre had been advocating for Hispanic rights since he was a teenager, and the march became a pivotal moment for the then 24-year-old college student at George Washington University.

In the 1960s, he said, “the Black and Latino civil rights movements were separate” and some Latinos “did not like me aligning with the Black movement.”

“We share in the movement now,” he said and believes there is a “bright future” for Black and Latino Americans.

He would go on to become the US ambassador to the Dominican Republic. And in July 2022 Yzaguirre was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

But when it comes to civil rights, Yzaguirre said he does not “feel like the country has changed enough.”

“The country was on an upward trajectory that has not been sustained. Immigrants are being treated like beasts of burden. There is a lack of respect for human dignity,” Yzaguirre said. “The younger generation wants to live in a society that is fair, just and equitable. It is imperative that they get involved and never give up.”

Japanese American Citizens League

After more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II, many Asian Americans joined the fight to ensure equal rights were guaranteed for all Americans.

Among them were leaders of the country’s largest Asian American and Pacific Islander civil rights organization, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL).

David Inoue, executive director of the JACL, said over time members came to see their fight for equal rights as “directly intertwined and inseparable” from the civil rights movement.

“Part of this came from the recognition that wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans was because we had no allies speaking out for us,” Inoue said in an email to CNN.

“One of the clear lessons from the incarceration experience was that we needed to work more closely with other communities to fight for broader civil rights for all,” he said.

On August 28, 1963, at least 20 of members of the JACL marched in solidarity with Black Americans, calling for equal access to freedom and jobs.

“Our engagement with other communities later made our own fight for redress possible, as the alliances forged with other groups enabled us to call upon their assistance when we needed it,” Inoue said. “It also played a role in JACL not being afraid to take leading positions such as in the issue of gay marriage.”

After the march, leaders of the organization pushed Congress to support civil rights legislation and to pass the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended a national-origins quota system that had largely excluded Asians.

While the US has made progress on certain rights, he believes a deep racial divide remains and there is not full equality for the LGBTQ+ community. The anniversary of the march, he said, is a “continuation, not just a commemoration, of the work of 60 years ago until Dr. King’s dream is truly realized.”

“It takes years of struggle to sometimes achieve the smallest of victories. It’s great to have the major victories, but we need to sometimes also take encouragement from the small victories or even when we hold the status quo,” Inoue said. “And there is always the backlash, which can make things look really bad, but we can’t give up, and need to keep fighting.”