Throngs of people descended on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech — some of whom had been there a half-century ago for the reverend's historic oratory.
King's soaring address, delivered to 250,000 supporters, punctuated the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was a watershed moment for race relations in America that has been remembered in a week-long series of events, which will culminate in remarks from President Obama on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial this afternoon.
Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Jamie Foxx were among a list of speakers addressing a nation that has made great strides in racial equality since King's "dream" speech helped bring about landmark civil rights legislation.
"Dr. King was the passionate voice that awakened the conscience of the nation," Winfrey told the people in the crowd, urging them to carry on his message. "He challenged us to see how we all are more alike than we are different."
Organizers told The Associated Press that 200,000 people were expected to attend Wednesday's event.
Betty Gray, 67, traveled to Washington from Richmond, Va., for the anniversary of the speech, which she went to 50 years ago. She said she took the NAACP bus for four dollars round-trip 50 years ago and went because her mother was a civil rights activist who was honored by former President Harry Truman for helping sign black people up to vote.
"It's in my mom's memory that I'm here today," said Gray, who also attended both inaugurations for Obama.
Occasional rain showers were forecast to hit Washington throughout the day, but the overcast, humid weather didn't deter crowds: Thousands had already packed the National Mall as of early Wednesday morning, NBCWashington.com reported. Some carried umbrellas or were wearing ponchos.
At one point during the events — amid Leann Rimes' rendition of "Amazing Grace" — a rainbow appeared over the sky.
As crowds filled the Mall in the shadow of a scaffold-covered Washington Monument — still under repair from an earthquake two years ago — they passed by vendors selling t-shirts, buttons, and bells marking the anniversary. Young and old — kids on summer break, college students and senior citizens — were part of the masses.
Imogen Hutchinson, 60 — born and raised in Alabama as the daughter of a sharecropper — recalled life at the time of the March on Washington.
"I remember being afraid all the time," she said. "My parents were scared for King."
Hutchinson's friend, Reba Diggs, 81, has lived in Washington since 1951, but couldn't make the 1963 march because of health reasons.
"I was determined to come this time," she said. "I am so proud of what Martin Luther King did here."
Dianne Hardy, 68, from Maryland, had also wanted to come, but said her mother wouldn't let her.
"She thought the march was threatening," she said. "It's so awesome [to be here today]."
Events were planned throughout the day to mark the 50th anniversary, starting with a 9 a.m. interfaith service. Speakers, including various senators and congressmen and NAACP President Ben Jealous, were also part of the commemoration.
"As we go home today, let us remember that the dreamer was also a doer," Jealous said. "Let us not just be dreamers this day. Let us recommit to being doers."
Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who witnessed King's speech, was among those who addressed the crowd on Wednesday.
"Fifty years ago at this place, at this sacred place, Americans sent a message to their leaders and around the world that the promise of equality, of opportunity, equality before law ... applied to everyone in this country, not just the lucky few of the right color or the accident of birth," he said.
Peter and Paul, from the singing trio Peter, Paul and Mary, got on stage to sing "Blowin' in the Wind," the 1962 Bob Dylan hit that they had sung in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, turning the song into an anthem for interracial relations.
Singing it again Wednesday in the same spot 50 years later, they were joined by the parents of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teen whose killing in February of 2012 sparked a national debate on race relations.
Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter are also scheduled to speak later at the ceremony, which will include bell-ringing at 3 p.m. ET — 50 years to the minute after King called for civil rights with the words "let freedom ring."
About 50 communities and organizations across the U.S. will ring bells when the clock strikes 3 p.m.
Tokyo and the Swiss city of Lutry will also take part in the bell-ringing, an event organizer told Reuters.
Former President George W. Bush called on the nation to carry on King's legacy in a statement released Wednesday.
"Dr. King was on this Earth just 39 years, but the ideals that guided his life of conscience and purpose are eternal. Honoring him requires the commitment of every one of us. There's still a need for every American to help hasten the day when Dr. King's vision is made real in every community — when what truly matters is not the color of a person's skin, but the content of their character," he said.
The country remains deeply divided over how much progress there has been toward racial equality in the half-century since the march. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, fewer than half of Americans believe "substantial" progress has been made toward King's dream over the last 50 years. Among blacks, fewer than one-in-three say the same.
However, in other areas such as high school completion, life expectancy and voter turnout, the gaps have narrowed or — in the case of the latter — disappeared entirely.
Yet Wednesday's commemoration takes place in the waning days of a summer in which various conversations on race relations struck a chord in the national mood.
In July, Obama delivered personal, unscripted remarks on issues of race after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin.
And earlier this month in New York City, a federal judge ruled that the controversial "stop-and-frisk" tactic used by police violated the Constitution and amounted to "indirect racial profiling."
In addition to the current and former presidents scheduled to speak Wednesday, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia will address the crowd. Lewis was the youngest speaker at the 1963 march and delivered a speech that admonished the Kennedy administration for doing "too little, too late" for southern blacks.
Lewis was among the civil rights advocates who spoke out last weekend against the Supreme Court's ruling on voting laws as thousands retraced King's footsteps in an organized march. King's eldest son, Martin Luther King III, also attended the march and remarked on his father's legacy.
"This is not the time for nostalgic commemoration," he said. "The task is not done. The journey is not complete. We can and we must do more."