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Scenes from the March on Washington

AP Photo

For some, hope wasn’t the right word. It had stumbled, fallen flat, and then risen to become something much more tangible. For the thousands gathered on the National Mall on Saturday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington, hope had several incarnations.

“Just being able to walk down the mall hand-in-hand…” said Irene Burks, 44, who held onto her wife, Leia, while their 10-year-old son, Marquise, looked on. “That just gave me chills.” Marquise immediately seized his mother’s arm, checking for goose bumps.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever be post-racial,” continued Burks, “but we’re definitely no longer in the 60s. Every day is a step closer to equality for everyone.”

Leia Burks, 45, nodded in agreement. “It’s not a black or white thing anymore. It’s really about the right thing, anyone fighting for something that they’re deserving,” she said.

Walking the rest of the way down the graveled paths of the mall to the heart of the event in front of the Lincoln Memorial was like pushing through a gauntlet of good vibes. Entire families were out in full force alongside fired up teenagers sporting high tops and mohawks, union reps shouting their preferred slogans and elders resting on nearby park benches.

The familiar sounds of political mass wafted through the air. Men hawked “souvenirs, souvenirs!”—T-shirts, buttons, tie clips, fine art work, you name it—and strangers gathered in the shade to talk shop. “That’s right” and “umm hmms” drifted from more than one conversation.

“I just wanted to give you a hug,” said one woman as she approached an elderly gentleman whose lack of teeth didn’t stop him from beaming at passersby.

“He’s been a super star today,” said Dedrick Battler, 39, an organizer with the Pico National Network, referring to his smiling companion, 80-year-old Robert Bryant from Camden, New Jersey.

Bryant, who missed the original march despite being active in community organizing, said he had only one word for the day’s events: “incredible.”

“The people,” he explained, “there are so many different people, but I feel a oneness.”

Bryant also said he was most impressed by “the incredible growth in our young people. The differences don’t mean so much to them. They’re closer to god than the old ones are.”

One such young person was Tray Springer, 7, who stood near the reflecting pool and posed happily for pictures while clutching a sign that read, “Trayvon is Proof We Need the Racial Justice Act.”

“My children are such hams,” said 39-year-old Tracy Springer, Tray’s mother.

Springer, her husband and their three sons, ages 7 through 11, drove from North Carolina. They ate “shoebox lunches” at a rest stop along the way. Because of segregation, marchers in 1968 weren’t allowed to stop at restaurants during the long journey to Washington. Springer’s mother-in-law remembered the boxed lunches from the original march and wanted the children to experience the same. “She told us the story and we all learned,” said Springer.

As we talk her oldest interrupts, asking for more snacks from his mother’s backpack. But they aren’t for him.

“Can I give something to a homeless person?” he asks as Springer discusses how she was particularly struck by Myrlie Evers-Williams’ and Sybrina Fulton’s speeches.

“It’s still a little scary, especially now. It’s the not knowing,” said Springer. “Before at least we knew how to protect our children, but now we don’t even know what’s going to work. You can’t fight, but you can’t sit still. You can’t run but you can’t walk. So what can you do?” asked Springer.

When asked if she still had hope, Springer spoke cautiously.

“I don’t want to say hopeful. I need a new word. I like to speak in truth, like it’s going to happen.”