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Dispatch from the Mall: 50 Years After the March on Washington

It was all about the line—the line and the heat. The line was more of a mass, a crowd stretching thick and far from the security gates, where mounted officers patrolled. Everyone was waiting, inching forward, sweating.

They were on their way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, an event that has come to stand for the whole of the civil rights movement. But for now, all the talk was about the line, or else the heat. 

"It's the little things!" someone cries when the line advances, as a mass, by half a step, the biggest advance of the last quarter hour. 

A few yards in front of him, two women talk about the suited man to their left, how hot he must be. It's the most Washingtonian sort of summer heat, the kind that comes with gray skies and deceptively low thermometer readings, but weighs far more oppressively than the sun and turns the air to sweat. 

Before the line there were protestors, people who don't bother to crawl with everyone else but want to be sure they are heard. They're talking about Syria ("this president is loathe to admit he has blood on his hands!") and Trayvon Martin. Most people walk right past them. Near the Washington Monument, a recording of Martin Luther King's speech from 50 years ago blares. They walk past that, too. A few people buy commemorative t-shirts, maybe a bottle of water. 

Police officers, DDOT officers, and secret service officers field questions. Most of their answers sound the same: Yes, you have to wait in the line. There's no way around it. Almost all the officers are black—a definitive change from 50 years ago.

A young woman in a shiny blue dress follows an officer with a bicycle out of the line. He assures her that there's free medical care at 17th street if she needs it. "You didn't actually black out, did you?" her friend asks. She did. 

Two students in Howard University shirts play a game: one flips her hands, tries to catch her friend before he can pull his away. A toddler progresses from smiles to playing with an acorn to tears. 

Someone tries to cut the line. Some people say nothing. One woman stops the line-jumper. She looks bashful, but not too much, and she stops advancing through the crowd. 

Because the line is not a line, some people move faster than others. You get used to the faces around you, reencounter some after time apart, jump away from others when another path looks quicker. 

Everyone is taking pictures; it's not clear of what. 

"Yeah, well, they need water and I'm not buying it," a stern white woman says to no one in particular as she weaves her way out of the crowd, bailing just yards before the end, two perplexed middle school kids in tow. 

Professionals in suits have Bluetooths in their ears. One talks about her new job. Every four years, I take a year off, she says. To re-center herself, stay sane, not work. Not wait in lines. 

At the front, they go through security. Most of them know the drill by now, watches off, phones out of pockets, hold your arms up for the wand. No water bottles allowed through. 

"We made it through!" a man says once they are free. His two young children repeat him, in turn: "we made it through!"

They made it through to get to a ceremony featuring a litany of speakers, each with his own progressive cause. Most of the crowd is unresponsive to those speeches. That's not what they waited in line for, what they took pictures for, or what they bought commemorative shirts for. They waited in line so they could look back on the people who did more than wait, and who created a world in which they were free to wait.