Britni Hiatt boarded a bus at midnight Thursday to attend the anniversary of a march that even her parents are too young to remember.
As she stood Saturday near the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall and listed to speakers commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, she felt she was exactly where she belonged.
“It’s better than I expected,” said the 22-year-old from Wellington. “You can never fully anticipate the energy.”
Hiatt, who graduated from Florida Atlantic University this spring and was active in protesting the now-scuttled deal to name its football stadium for private prison operator GEO Group, came to Washington as a member of the Dream Defenders. The Florida group is focused on many of the same goals the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. laid out in his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech.
Wednesday will mark the 50th anniversary of the march that drew more than 400,000 and the speech, taught in every elementary school in the country.
On Saturday, dozens of speakers – some well-known and others unfamiliar – recognized how far the nation has progressed over five decades. But they exhorted Hiatt’s generation to pick up the pieces of the dream that have not been realized.
“This is not the time for a nostalgic commemoration,” said Martin Luther King III. “The task is not done; the journey is not complete.”
The mood Saturday was upbeat. Speakers took a preacher’s tone and rallied the crowd to action.
Voting rights, gay marriage and an equitable education for children of all races were recurring themes. The death of Trayvon Martin, and a jury verdict many thought was unjust, was evidence, numerous speakers said, of how far the nation has yet to come.
Vendors sold T-shirts with an image of MLK wearing a hoodie. “Justice” signs with Trayvon Martin’s photo dotted the crowd. Sybrina Fulton was called to microphone on the steps on the Lincoln Memorial as the ceremony was winding down.
Yes, Trayvon was her son, Fulton said.
“He is all of our son and we have to fight for our children,” she said.
The Dream Defenders formed after Martin’s killing. Its members marched 40 miles to Sanford and held a sit-in at the town police station days before George Zimmerman was arrested.
About 55 members of the group traveled to Washington. At Saturday’s event, they were still pumped from their 31-day sit-in at the state capital, which ended this month. The members staged an occupation of Gov. Rick Scott’s office.
They pushed for Trayvon’s Law, a package of policies aimed at dismantling Florida’s “stand your ground” law, changing the culture of school discipline and ending racial profiling.
The Dream Defenders are “students of the Civil Rights Movement,” said Nailah Summers, president of the group’s University of Florida Chapter.
“That time is the blueprint for everything we do now.”
Phillip Agnew, Dream Defenders’ executive director, was given two minutes at the microphone Saturday to speak to the thousands gathered, stretching almost to the Washington Monument.
He was among the day’s youngest speakers.
Agnew talked about the “attack on voting rights,” the lack of quality education for the poor and “people of color” and what he said is a record number of young people in jail because of their color or class.
“It makes a really strong case for why our generation needs to step up the plate,” Agnew said.