People with a poster gather near the reflecting pool next to Lincoln Memorial as thousands commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a Dream" speech on August 24, 2013, in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOVMLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images
Updated: September 26, 2013 6:49AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The most impressive speaker at the “Realize the Dream” March on Washington Saturday wasn’t a rising political star, budding activist, or seasoned preacher.
It was Asean Johnson, a 9-year-old boy from Chicago who took on the city’s school board and Mayor Rahm Emanuel in May when he protested the closing of Marcus Garvey Elementary School on the Far South Side.
With Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, holding the microphone, Asean delivered a stunning message to the tens of thousands of marchers who had descended on the nation’s capitol to pay homage to the veterans of the 1963 March on Washington.
“I am marching for education, justice and freedom. All over the country public education is under attack. Public schools are closing in African American and Latino communities,” Asean told the sea of marchers.
“In Chicago, we have 50 schools closings in African American and Latino communities; budget cuts in all public schools and an increase in charter schools budgets and new charter schools openings. Every child deserves a great education, every school deserves equal funding and resources,” Asean continued passionately.
I’m sure Mayor Emanuel’s ears were burning.
Brandon Lewis, a senior at Chicago State University, said education is making a difference in the trajectory of his life.
“I was the kind of guy in the community with no hope,” said Lewis, 28, after the march. “I am from the real city — the South Side low end. And I went to the Marines right after getting into trouble. Then I went to Chicago State University and [majored] in African American Studies. Education helped me to see there is hope.”
Saturday’s star-studded event kicked off the commemoration of the historic “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and also put Chicago’s problems on the national stage.
The actual date of the famous gathering is Aug. 28th when President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak.
On Saturday, the Rev. Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network and media personality, along with Martin Luther King III, assembled many of the nation’s top activists, politicians and civil rights leaders to not only reflect on the past, but to voice the concerns many African Americans have today.
“This morning we affirm that struggle must and will go on until every eligible American has a chance to exercise his or her right to vote,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, referring to the strict voter identification laws some Southern states have enacted.
In 1963, the agenda for the March on Washington was rooted in the atrocities happening in the South.
Fifty years later, the gun violence is a grave concern of urban dwellers.
Annette Holt, the mother of Blair Holt who was gunned down in 2007, appeared with the group, “Voices Against Violence,” to put the spotlight on the tragic losses.
“I think it was important and significant to be here because Martin Luther King was killed with a gun. We still have to battle those same issues: violence, housing, education, poverty,” said Holt after her appearance.
While many of the speakers spoke passionately against the stricter voting laws, Holt pointed out that saving the lives of our children has to be a priority.
“If we don’t get control of the violence now, we aren’t going to have another Barack Obama and Eric Holder,” she said.
Sharpton also briefly addressed violence in his remarks.
“We gotta fight against this recklessness that makes us so insensitive that we shoot each other for no reason,” he said.
The spotlight on Chicago’s ills is not necessarily a bad thing, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. told me.
“The crisis is an opportunity to address the issues and need not be seen as bad mouthing the city,” he said.
“It is poverty and one by-product of poverty is violence. Jobs out — guns and drugs in. That is why I think the president when he speaks on Wednesday…we don’t need so much reflection and motivation. We need legislation and appropriation,” he said.
By late afternoon, most of the marchers were starting their exhaustive treks back to hotels to pack for the return home.
On one level, that tens of thousands of black people could make the journey to D.C. without a hassle shows the progress we have made.
“Let us remember 50 years ago, some came to Washington having rode the back of buses. Some came to Washington never having the privilege to vote...They came to Washington so we can come today in a different time and a different place and we owe them for what we have today,” Sharpton said.
But when a 9-year-old boy from Chicago steps into the fight for a fair and equitable public school system, it shows we still have a very long way to go.