WASHINGTON — Congress had a dream to celebrate the anniversary of the March on Washington before leaving for a five-week recess, and luckily for its members it had the clout to pull some strings.
While the 50th anniversary of the landmark civil rights march culminating in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech isn’t until Aug. 28, congressional leaders had their own celebration Wednesday in the Capitol.
"There are moments . . . when you can literally feel history turning a corner, when you actually see an idea or a cause become more than that, and when you know that after this point in time, old ways will be left to the past," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "The March on Washington was just such a moment."
McConnell joined House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in commemorating the event.
Pelosi and McConnell attended the march 50 years ago, McConnell as a student at the University of Louisville and Pelosi just days before her wedding. Reid, who was then a U.S. Capitol Police officer, was working during the event.
"Anybody who was there standing in the crowd at the March on Washington would remember the solemnity and the sounds of the day," Pelosi said.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., spoke alongside King during the march and gave a cogent account of his experience. Before serving in Congress, Lewis was a key member of the civil rights movement as one of the original Freedom Riders, a group that was beaten and arrested for trying to integrate buses. He also served as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a prominent group in the movement.
"Fifty years later, those of us who are committed to the cause of justice need to pace ourselves, because our struggle does not last for one day, one week or one year, but it is the struggle of a lifetime, and each generation must do its part," Lewis said. "There will be progress, but there will also be setbacks. We must continue to have hope and be steeled in our faith that this nation will one day become a truly multiracial democracy."
With Attorney General Eric Holder in the audience, Reid blasted the recent Supreme Court decision that invalidated parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was passed in the shadows of the march.
"Some of the progress made by the civil rights movement and some of the freedoms protected by the Voting Rights Act are once again under siege," Reid said. "Since the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down portions of the Voting Rights Act, states once again are free to erect barriers discouraging American citizens from exercising one of the most fundamental rights: the right to vote without intimidation or obstruction."
Holder, the administration’s top law enforcement agent, denounced the decision after it was handed down and he’s since filed a voter rights challenge against Texas.
The ceremony Wednesday was in Statuary Hall, which served as the House of Representatives chamber until 1857. Boehner noted in his opening remarks that freshman Rep. Abraham Lincoln had submitted a bill in the hall that called for emancipating slaves in Washington. The room now holds 38 statues as part of a collection that represents each of the 50 states.
A larger commemoration is planned for Aug. 24 at the Lincoln Memorial, where King gave his speech. Planned speakers include the Rev. Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III, Lewis, Pelosi and family members of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teen who was fatally shot in Florida.