WASHINGTON, D.C. — Families of Black Americans killed at the hands of police will join Reverend Al Sharpton in the same place Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech to demand criminal justice reform.
The event is titled “Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” in memory of George Floyd, a 46-year-old father who died after a Minneapolis police officer placed a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Relatives of Floyd will speak at the event, as will family members of Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and Eric Garner. All four were Black Americans who died during or after confrontations with police.
The event is hosted by the National Action Network, a civil rights organization founded by Rev. Sharpton in early 1991. Sharpton announced the march back in June during a memorial for Floyd, saying the late father would “stand up for injustice anywhere.”
"George Floyd's story has been the story of black folks because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed to be is you kept your knee on our neck,” Sharpton said at the time. “It's time for us to stand up in George's name and say, 'Get your knee off our necks!'”
In an interview with Spectrum News earlier this week, Sharpton also mentioned the importance of holding the march during an election year.
“Just like 57 years ago, they came to Washington in 63 to get the 64 civil rights act we’re coming to say in 2020, in the heat of an election, and many in the Senate are up for re-election, we want to see the John Lewis voter rights bill passed, and we want to see the George Floyd Police and Justice Act Passed,” Sharpton said.
The march follows a summer of nationwide protests over the killings of Black Americans, which were sparked when videos of Floyd’s arrest were shared on social media.
Just last Sunday, Jacob Blake was shot by officers in front of his own children in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Video of the 29-year-old being shot seven times in the back as his terrified children watched was widely circulated online, and the outrage quickly led to protests across the state.
Thousands of people gathered near the Lincoln Memorial ahead of the speeches, reminiscent of the packed crowd that filled the National Mall 57 years ago when King delivered his own address about civil rights.
In many ways, the United States has not addressed the deep systematic racism affecting Black citizens in the five decades since King’s speech. One person knows this better than most — King’s son, Martin Luther King III.
He was only five years old when King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech, and the now 62-year-old will join the “March On Washington” to touch on many of the same issues as his father.
"Dad would be very proud that people are coming together to stand up against injustice," Martin Luther King III told CNN ahead of the march. "But certainly very sad that we're still attempting to get justice."
The event is being streamed live on the NAN’s website. In addition to the Floyd, Taylor, Blake, and Garner families, viewers will see speeches by civil rights leaders and government officials.
Elected officials from across the country have voiced their support for the movement both on social media and in speeches at the Lincoln Memorial.
Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris shared a video message on Twitter where she honored the people past and present who have fought for civil rights.
“On the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington, let’s continue to march on for justice, in the name of our ancestors and in the name of our children and grandchildren,” Harris captioned the tweet.
“I was born into an activist family with my parents, my aunts and uncles, pushing me in a stroller through bay area streets marching for justice in the years following the March on Washington,” she added about the original 1963 march. “This moment is a reminder that we must always honor the sacrifice of the leaders who made that march happen. From the names we know, like Randolph and Farmer, Young and King, to everyone who worked behind the scenes and sacrificed quietly but profoundly far from the lights of history.”
The former prosecutor also touched on the history of violence towards Black Americans, evoking the names of Emmett Till and thanked the late John Lewis for his tireless work for equality and social justice.
“For Congressman Lewis, the brutal murder of Emmett Till is what shook loose the activist inside of him,” Kamala said. “As John put it, Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland, and Breonna Taylor.”
Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty was one of several lawmakers who made speeches on the National Mall.
“We are here today because people died and were denied economic and civil rights,” Beatty began her passionate speech. “We are here today because George Floyd had a knee on his neck for eight minutes and 47 seconds. Black lives matter.”
The congresswoman also called for the government to pass the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act, a bill introduced in June 2020 which “establishes a framework to prohibit racial profiling at the federal, state, and local levels.”
Charles Booker, the youngest Black state lawmaker in Kentucky, spoke to a growing crowd early in the day on Friday. The 35-year-old gave an impassioned speech where he called for justice for Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed when police executed a no-knock warrant on her Louisville, Kentucky home.
“I am a personal witness that we are ready for this moment,” Booker said. “We’re built for the work we must do, and if we come together, all of us, if we stand united, if we march together, if we bend that arch together there is nothing we can't do.”
“Let’s win together. Let's fight together. Let’s transform our future,” Booker later continued. “Breonna, I’m representing you right now.”
Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Presley took the stage and said she was “thinking of the ancestors.”
“If my granddaddy, the Rev. James Echols, were here, he would whisper in my ear and say, 'Grandbaby, make it play.' And I intend to do just that,” Presley declared.