On Aug. 28, 1963, more than 200,000 people gathered in the nation’s capital for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic I Have a Dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Fifty-seven years later, social justice activists from around the world united in response to recent police shootings of unarmed African Americans.
While thousands traveled to Washington to attend the National Action Network’s Commitment March in person, the NAACP hosted a virtual march for those who felt more comfortable commemorating the anniversary online. The NAACP 2020 Virtual March was hosted by journalist April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks and featured two nights of speeches and powerful performances on Aug. 27 and 28.
According to the NAACP, the goal of the virtual march was to create “a new agenda that prioritizes equity, justice and opportunity for all.”
“We will demand at the ballot box and moving forward that Black lives really do matter,” said NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson during the Virtual March. Johnson recalled his experience from earlier this year of walking with Rep. John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, just four months before the late congressman’s death. “He gave us the charge that we must vote like we’ve never voted before,” Johnson said.
Using the hashtag #NonstopToNovember, the Virtual March emphasized the power of voting. Viewers were urged to vote in the November 3rd general elections and take people with them to the polls.
The two-day program featured stellar talent, including performances by singer Macy Gray who gave a simplistic yet soulful rendition of Lift Every Voice and Sing, Nigerian vocalist Burna Boy, poet, Sunni Patterson with musician PJ Morton and the Alvin Ailey Dancers. There were also performances by Image Award nominee Lisa Ramey, a singer on the 16th season of The Voice, and Image Award and Grammy Award winner, H.E.R., who sang a song she wrote about the new movement for Black lives called "I Can’t Breathe."
Popular New Orleans DJ Mannie Fresh introduced Tank & the Bangas, who performed with the Keep Ya Distance Brass Band. They performed in Studio Be, home to visual artist Brandan “Bmike” Odums, who live-painted a portrait of the late John Lewis during the Virtual March. In addition, comedian Sheryl Underwood and actor Larenz Tate encouraged viewers to vote.
The first evening of the Virtual March was titled, “The Call,” and featured a rainbow contingent of activists, politicians, community leaders and celebrities who expressed their frustrations, grief and outrage at the growing list of police killings of unarmed Black Americans and the failures of the American justice system.
Keynote speakers for the night included Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris also gave brief remarks. All segments for the Virtual March were pre-recorded.
Booker issued a call for unity.
“We share one destiny,” he said. “We must herald the call for our community to show unity, to exercise our strength and our power to bend the arc of that moral universe towards justice. We are the arc benders.”
Abrams, who started her own voter advocacy group, Fair Fight Action, after the 2018 Georgia election was marred by voter suppression, highlighted the contributions of Black women to the early suffrage and Civil Rights Movement. She noted how both struggles were intertwined in what she called “the complex nature of progress.”
“From gaining women’s suffrage to the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter, Black women have lifted their voices and put their bodies on the line in the fight for liberation, often with little recognition,” said Abrams. “Black women fought for victories they wouldn’t enjoy and achieved freedoms they were denied.”
Pelosi, who attended the 1963 march, mentioned Jacob Blake and a list of other African Americans who have been killed at the hands of police in recent years as reasons for continuing John Lewis’ legacy.
“We must keep up the fight,” said Pelosi. “As John Lewis would say, ‘We must find a way to get in the way.’”
The first night of the Virtual March concluded with a panel discussion moderated by Errin Haines Whack, editor at large of The 19th, a nonpartisan news organization focused on the intersection of gender, politics and policy. The panel featured Johnnetta Cole, chair of the National Council of Negro Women; the Rev. Leah Daughtry, CEO of the 2008 and 2016 Democratic National Convention Committees; Tamika Mallory, former co-chair of the Women’s March, and Porsha Williams of the Real Housewives of Atlanta and granddaughter of the late civil rights leader the Rev. Hosea Williams.
The panel reflected on the unarmed shootings of African Americans, which have continued during the COVID-19 pandemic; the emotional toll on the Black community; and how the world is responding.
“I think we’re in a perpetual state of rage, frustration and hopelessness,” Mallory said. “All those feelings make up the Black experience in this moment.”
The women compared this experience to the birthing process, where beauty is birthed out of pain, something the Rev. Daughtry described as “the intersection of hopelessness and hopefulness.” “Black women have endured the pain for 401 years,” said Cole. “We’ve known systemic racism and systemic sexism. And yet with that duality of oppression, Black women continue to rise.”
Williams said this is a faith moment and encouraged African American women to turn their pain into purpose.
“Black women have been able to tap into the pain and use it,” Williams said. “What I’m seeing is a true breakthrough. We can’t be shaken. We can’t be moved.”
The second night of the Virtual March was called “The Charge,” and included highlights from the National Action Network’s Commitment March earlier that day. The live march was led by Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III. After the program, attendees marched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Martin Luther King Jr., Memorial.
CLICK TO WATCH RECORDED MARCH LIVE STREAM
NAACP national board member the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, who is also co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and founder of Repairers of the Breach, gave the final marching orders of the Virtual March. Barber reminded viewers that thousands traveled to the nation’s capital in 1963 to march for jobs and freedom, a radical idea at the time, but over the years, Barber noted, the March on Washington had been commercialized.
“We must re-radicalize the March on Washington,” he said. “The whirlwinds of revolt must continue to shake the foundations of this nation.”
Barber said 57 years after the 1963 March on Washington, there is still work to do, referring to continued systemic racism, voter suppression and police brutality. He suggested redirecting money from the military, prisons, a border wall and policing and investing it into marginalized communities.
“Our charge, simply and yet profoundly, is go forth and go forward,” Barber said. “Forward together, and not one step back.”