"It's not a pretty picture, every generation there's some other voter obstacle to jump over," he said. "It does make me wonder, you know at this age, whether our children and our grandchildren will see any more progress. It appears that folks in these state legislatures and also in the Congress want to slow things down."
North Carolina recently enacted one of the strictest voter laws in the nation. The law cuts down on early voting hours, ends same-day voter registration, ends a high school program that registered students to vote and requires a government-issued photo ID to vote, although student IDs and out-of-state driver's licenses will not be accepted.
The U.S. Department of Justice is suing to block a similar, less restrictive, law in Texas and is reportedly considering a challenge to the North Carolina law as well.
"We made strides in voting," Tolbert said. "At the time there were just a handful of blacks in Congress, practically no Hispanics, but at the same time, all of this voter suppression and challenges might roll back the progress."
Shearin, who works for the Charleston Job Corps Center and is also an ordained minister, remembers the march, officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, as a push not just for racial equality, but for economic equality as well.
With measures of economic inequality soaring in America, she has a dim view of elected officials.
"You get a bunch of lackadaisical non-reading lawyers in Congress who sit there and pass down laws and do whatever they want to do to promote themselves," she said. "And we still got to fight for ours. We got to fight for Medicare, we got to fight for Social Security -- a system we paid into."
'Roll up our sleeves'
Rev. Ron English moved to Charleston in 1972 to be the pastor at the First Baptist Church. Before that he had been an associate minister at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, working under that church's two co-pastors -- Martin Luther King Jr. and Sr.
Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged English to go into the seminary, and English later gave the prayer at King's funeral in 1968.
In 1963, English was a 19-year-old student at Morehouse College when he and a friend drove from Atlanta to Washington for the march.
On the drive to Washington they passed through Lynchburg, Va., where, right in the middle of town, they saw a hanging noose.
English said that the march and King's speech need to be remembered in the context of that spring's Birmingham Campaign, in which nonviolent protesters, including children, were met with increasingly violent resistance.
"When you look at the footage of what happened with (Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene) "Bull" Connor and the billy clubs and dogs, you will see more children and more youth in that footage than any other footage," English said.
That sort of open, virulent racism is mostly a thing of the past, but King's message is still needed for race relations in America today, English said.
"Part of his moral leadership as expressed in that speech is what we need now in terms of how we need nonviolent communication to become a more civil society," English said. "The reality of race is something that has been covered over until it emerges in a Trayvon Martin case.
"We still have not dealt with the reality of race, so the dialogue kind of continues by the tragic events that have forced us to look at that again."
Rev. Matthew Watts, pastor at the Grace Bible Church in Charleston and a community leader on the West Side, was only 7 in 1963, but he remembers watching King's speech on television in his living room in Mount Hope.
Watts said that despite the progress made in dismantling legally-sanctioned segregation, King might be disappointed if he saw the state of America today.
"I don't think he would envision that more than 70 percent of black children would be born out of wedlock, I don't think that he could imagine that we would have the mass incarceration of blacks that exists today and I don't think he would imagine that unemployment for blacks would be higher today," Watts said.
"It's not so much the memory of the dream or remembering the speech, but it's remembering what it was that he went to Washington to try to do," he said.
"If we want to honor Martin Luther King's legacy and see the dream realized, it's time to roll up our sleeves."
Reach David Gutman at david.gut...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.