Civil rights activist the Reverend Al Sharpton, speaking Friday to thousands who had gathered in Washington to march against police brutality and in support of criminal justice reform, said the U.S. needs to have “a new conversation” about the systemic racism he says continues to plague America.
“We’ve had the conversation for decades. It’s time we have a conversation with America,” Sharpton said. “We need to have a conversation about your racism, about your bigotry, about your hate, about how you would put your knee on our neck while we cry for our lives.”
WATCH: 2020 March on Washington
Sharpton’s remarks were made at the "Get Your Knee Off Our Necks March" at the Lincoln Memorial, which Sharpton’s National Action Network and others began to organize after George Floyd, an African American man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer pinned his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck as Floyd cried repeatedly that he could not breathe.
The march coincided with the 57th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech.
Jamal Bryant, pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in the mid-Atlantic city of Baltimore, Maryland, also addressed the crowd, saying, “We cannot be paralyzed.”
“We cannot allow white evangelicals to paralyze us, saying that they cannot support our agenda because they are for pro-life. Don’t tell me you are for pro-life and white evangelicals are silent when Black people are dying in the streets like dogs,” the pastor said. “We got to keep moving until our generation takes the baton, changes the country and makes America great for the very first time.”
The march followed months of demonstrations since Floyd's death in which protesters across the United States have accused police of unjustified violence against Black people.
Earlier this week, a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake, 29, in the back eight times in front of witnesses, including Blake's own young children. Blake is now paralyzed from the waist down.
Other organizers of Friday's event included Martin Luther King III; the NAACP, the country’s oldest civil rights organization; the Hispanic Federation; the National Urban League; and other civil rights groups and unions.
The event began on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. From there, the demonstrators planned to march to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Speakers included lawmakers and relatives of people who have died as a result of police violence.
Originally, up to 100,000 people were expected to attend Friday, but estimates were lowered to about 50,000, according to a permit issued by the National Park Service this week.
The coronavirus pandemic was a factor in participation at Friday's event. Organizers said that all participants' temperatures would be checked, that there would be 200 hand-sanitizing stations, and that all participants would be required to wear face masks.
Sharpton’s organization canceled several chartered buses from states with high rates of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as Washington has imposed a two-week quarantine for people entering the city from several states, including Florida, Georgia and Texas.
People attending the event were sectioned off into areas where they would be able to maintain appropriate social distances while they watched and listened to activities on large video displays.