Demonstrator holds up a photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. under the new memorial honoring him in Washington on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
WASHINGTON (AP) — Thousands of people led by the Rev. Al Sharpton rallied Saturday near the Washington Monument, where speakers called for easier job access and decried the gulf between rich and poor before the crowd marched to the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
The rally was intended to drum up support for President Barack Obama’s jobs plan, which died Tuesday in the U.S. Senate. But speakers used the platform for varied causes, including condemning state laws requiring voter identification at the polls and protesting the recent execution of Troy Davis, a Georgia man convicted of killing an off-duty police officer. Davis maintained his innocence until his death and attracted thousands of supporters worldwide even though courts repeatedly ruled there wasn’t enough evidence to exonerate him.
Chanting for jobs and justice, many demonstrators carried banners for their labor unions and wore pins or T-shirts bearing King’s likeness. Obama is scheduled to speak Sunday at the dedication ceremony for the memorial, the first monument dedicated to a black leader on the National Mall.
Sharpton, the featured speaker at the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, blasted the Senate for its failure to pass Obama’s $450 billion jobs bill. The measure includes an extension of a payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits, as well as money to help local governments keep teachers and other workers on the job.
Obama and Senate Democratic leaders plan to try to pass elements of the measure, and the president used his weekly Internet and radio address Saturday to urge Republicans to support his economic proposals — or else explain to their constituents why they didn’t.
“If you can’t get the jobs bill done in the suites, then we will get the jobs bill done in the streets,” Sharpton said to cheers and applause.
He told the crowd that King would have supported their cause “because he stood for those who were cast down and cast back.” King’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, was also among the speakers.
“Over 45 years ago, my father talked about a redistribution of wealth. In fact, that is probably why he was killed,” King said. “Because he said if America is going to survive responsibly, then it must have a redistribution of wealth.”
Among those who attended Saturday’s rally was Kathie Williams, a part-time administrator for the Howard County, Md., parks and recreation department. She’d like to find full-time work but has struggled to do so despite an active search.
“No one has responded to me,” Williams said.
Belinda Shade, 56, of Waldorf, Md., works as a special education school administrator but said the economy still makes her insecure.
“Right now I have a job, but I don’t know what might happen tomorrow,” Shade said, later adding, “There are no jobs. People are really hurting. Everything is coming apart as a result.”
District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray held a separate protest demanding greater autonomy for the district government before joining in the larger gathering. Congress must approve the local government’s budget, and the mayor was arrested earlier this year as he protested a congressional budget deal that included restrictions on how the city could spend funds.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers were among the other speakers.
Nonetheless, Sharpton said the rally was not intended as an overtly political statement or as part of the president’s re-election bid.
“This is not about Obama,” he said. “This is about my mama.”