AU students reflect on 50th anniversary of the March On Washington

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Julia Shirley, Allison Erenbaum and Megan Yoder joined the anniversary celebration on the Mall. Photo by Megan Yoder.

Among the 250,000 people surrounding the Lincoln Memorial for the 50th Anniversary of the March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom, some of whom included citizens who were on the grounds 50 years ago, stood several undergraduate students from American University.

Allison Erenbaum, a freshman in the School of Communication, was committed to sticking it out in the rain and the 90-degree heat with her friends for several hours before they even reached the grounds.

“We stayed in line for close to three hours, and that was in itself an interesting experience because people around us were literally passing out. When someone would pass out, the citizens around them would point and say, ‘Medic! Medic!’ And then the medic would have to trudge through the people to get to them. We saw people getting carried away or walked out because they were so exhausted … That was pretty intense,” said Erenbaum.

While some attendees were determined to obtain spots toward the front by the mid-afternoon, Gabriella Herda-Salazar, a sophomore in the School of Communication, was content listening in the shade from a further distance.

“Once we were in the venue, we were able to find sitting room close to the first Jumbotron. It was so amazing to hear what each speaker had to say about Martin Luther King. For me, it was just so great to be surrounded by so many people who believe in the same things that I do and were all affected by the movement MLK created,” she said.

Erenbaum and Herda-Salazar unexpectedly interacted with citizens who had attended the original March On Washington. Both said it was remarkable to overhear these adults talk about their stories about facing oppression, and to be among them as they saw how events had unfolded 50 years later.

“One of the neat things about standing in line was that there was a senior from American standing next to us who was talking to a woman who had been at the March On Washington 50 years ago. That was interesting to hear that she was there…and to see that she was back and totally free. I’m sure she was facing oppression. I wonder if she marched, I didn’t get to hear the whole conversation, but that was pretty interesting,” said Erenbaum.

At approximately 3 p.m., the  hour when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the iconic “I Had A Dream” speech, President Obama stood beside an iron bell from the church in Birmingham, Ala., where four black girls were killed in September 1963, and literally let freedom ring. From there, he proceeded with one of the most profound speeches of the day.

“It was funny. We were actually joking about how Obama should get up there and say the [“I Have A Dream”] speech, but I don’t think it would have resonated as well,” said Erenbaum. “He definitely quoted on it and reflected on it to the audience while bringing it into today’s present sense about how we still need to do things for jobs and freedom for different groups…how there’s still unfinished business.”

This unfinished business includes the recent Supreme Court decision that overturned parts of the Voting Rights Act.

Erenbaum was so impacted by the speech that she saved a short excerpt of it on her phone to look back on for inspiration from time to time. She said that the people around her were “praising, clapping and applauding” while Obama spoke because they were so enthused by his words.

“He brought in a lot of historical things from the speech, playing on how it was then and how it is now … it’s basically almost like further calling out to the people now that we still need to make a change and we can still do what they did 50 years ago,” added Erenbaum.

Other keynote speakers this year included former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and Rep. John Lewis, the last of the leaders from the original rally. Other notables,  Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker, and daughters from the Kennedy and Johnson families, also spoke that afternoon.

“Of course, my favorite moment was listening to President Obama’s speech. It really moved me. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fangirl over Oprah, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton,” said Herda-Salazar. “Honestly, it was just an amazing day to witness and be a part of. I met people who were lucky enough to be at the March on Washington, and hopefully in another 50 years, on the 100th year anniversary, I’ll be able to say I was at the 50th anniversary,” she said.

“As horrible as it was waiting in line, the experience was definitely worth actually seeing the president because I don’t ever think I’ll ever be that close to any president ever again,” said Erenbaum. “… The whole thing was worth it. I’m going to take as much opportunity in these moments in the future because I mean, how could you not? You can look back and tell your family that you went and saw three presidents speak with Martin Luther King’s family on a day that will resonate for a long time,” she said.

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