Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and Dr. Martin Luther King’s inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech. More than 200,000 people gathered in Washington, DC in 1963 for the largest peaceful political rally in America’s history at the time, a decisive chapter in the nation’s civil rights history. This historic day changed the face of the Civil Rights Movement and the United States forever. This speech has lived on in the hearts and minds of Americans ever since the famous words were uttered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial five decades ago.
Reliving this pivotal event years later in Washington, DC—where it all took place—is incredibly powerful. For those international travelers interested in all facets of American culture, this movement is an important part of the nation’s collective history. Read on to find out what the March on Washington means for visitors like you.
The March on Washington Today
This significant time has been commemorated for the past few years both in Washington, DC and across the country through events, interviews with involved parties, documentaries and more. Washington, DC is a hub of activity surrounding the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, especially following the dedication the Martin Luther King Memorial on the National Mall exactly two years ago. “We’re excited to host a march 50 years later and to be physically here for the event,” says Elliott Ferguson, President and CEO of Destination DC, the destination marketing organization for Washington, DC. “It is exciting to talk about what this means to America as a country and how things have changed over the last 50 years.”
Dr. King’s speech 50 years ago made an impact on the American perspective of our nation’s capital. The District (as the city is often referred to) and the National Mall have become an important destination for people who have studied the march and U.S. civil rights. Often when people go to the reflecting pool on the national mall, they either think of Dr. King’s speech on the mall—or Forest Gump—Ferguson jokes.
However, the March on Washington involves more people than simply the African American community. A little known fact, the Jewish community played a huge role in the Civil Rights movement and their involvement really underscored the message behind the movement. “Their story and their recollection of the march are so profound and unique. It is not a message that people think about because people see the Civil Rights Movement as primarily an African American movement, but that was not necessarily what Dr. King’s message was. It is really civil rights…and civil rights are for everyone,” Ferguson says.
Washington, DC Then and Now
Washington, DC has gone through an impressive transformation since 1963 from civil rights and liberties to urban development. “Fifty years ago when someone would come to DC it would be about visiting the monuments and memorials, and to a certain extent the Smithsonian museums. For the African American community, it would be visiting U Street, the mecca for African American life at that time before the riots of 1968,” Ferguson recalls. And while the three Ms (Museums, Monuments and Memorials) are an important part of the visitor experience, the city has evolved to offer much more. Its history and place as the seat of power for the United States adds complexity and intrigue to the destination. However, as locals know, there are really two Washingtons: the political side and the other side. “The political side with Capitol Hill is extremely important and the reason why Washington exists, but there is the other side of the city with the neighborhoods, restaurants and shops, and so many things to see and do…you can get so many facets of American history and culture right here in Washington,” Ferguson adds.
From a civil rights perspective, DC has undergone a massive transformation as well. “Fast forward 50 years and look at President Obama in the White House. When you resurrect the words ‘I have a Dream’ it resonates quite differently now,” he adds.
Experiencing the March on Washington During Your Stay
Today Presidents Obama, Clinton and Carter are scheduled to speak during the reenactment. While we know you can’t be here on such short notice, you can visit our Facebook page later on for pictures of this event and follow these tips for reliving this event and the movement during your stay.
Your first stop should be the National Mall and the Lincoln Memorial. “Think about all of the historic events that have taken place, including the march on Washington, in front of the Lincoln Memorial. You feel as if you were there when history was being made 50 years ago and then again in 2013,” Ferguson advises. Next walk over the new Martin Luther King memorial, where you will find an imposing likeness of the famous leader and many of his important quotes.
Museums are the next stop on your tour. Many museums like Newseum, the National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of Women in the Arts, American History Museum, and the Library of Congress have exhibits dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King and the March on Washington (exhibits hyperlinked above). It is also the 55th anniversary of local institution Ben’s Chili bowl, one of the oldest African American-owned business in the District and a business that survived the U Street riots following Dr. King’s assassination. Stop there and enjoy their famous half-smoke chili dogs and take in some of the homegrown history. Lastly, visit Washington.org to plan your trip and find out more information on the entire Civil Rights movement including information on the U Street Corridor.
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