A Recent History of People Walking Thousands of Miles to Washington

Opal Lee may not have known it when she crossed the DC line at the end of a 133-day hike in honor of Texas’s slaves, but she was taking part in a long tradition: marching to Washington in service of a cause. Over the years, marchers have included high-profile groups—15,000 veterans in the Bonus Army March of the 1930s, the American Indian Movement’s Longest Walk from Alcatraz in 1978. Variations evolved, such as tractorcades that saw thousands drive John Deeres onto the Mall in the late ’70s. Here’s a more recent sampling.

1. Levi Rizk, a Virginia family doctor and ultramarathon runner.

Photograph of Rizk Courtesy of Hope Association

The Cause: To raise money to convert an RV into a mobile health clinic providing medical care to low-income communities.

How Far: Starting in Los Angeles, he ran 3,936 miles, finishing in December.

And Oh, Yeah: He did it in 91 days, averaging 40 miles—and ran 70.8 miles the final day.

2. AnnaLee Rain Yellow Hammer and 37 other Native Americans.

The Cause: To petition the Army Corps of Engineers to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.

How Far: About 2,000 miles, starting from Standing Rock Reservation. She finished in August.

And Oh, Yeah: She’s only 13 years old, and her core group was mostly made up of teenagers. “Who is to say our lives don’t matter? Who’s to say we don’t deserve a generation?”

3. Paulette Leaphart, a breast-cancer survivor who has had a double mastectomy.

Photograph of Leaphart by Kelly Willner

The Cause: To promote government-funded breast-cancer research.

How Far: About 1,000 miles, starting in Biloxi, Mississippi. She finished in June.

And Oh, Yeah: She did it all topless. “I needed them to see me and to see the side effects and to see the humanness in this disease.”

4. Terence Lester, founder of Love Beyond Walls, which serves those facing poverty in Atlanta.

Photograph of Lester courtesy of Love Beyond Walls

The Cause: To raise awareness of poverty.

How Far: 750 miles, starting in Atlanta. He finished in October.

And Oh, Yeah: His walk was inspired by a woman who walked seven miles to his Atlanta center one day for a bag of groceries.

5. Opal Lee, past board chair of Fort Worth’s Community Food Bank.

The Cause: To petition Congress for a national day of observance honoring the slaves in Galveston who were freed June 19, 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

How Far: 120 miles, starting in Fort Worth. She finished on January 11.

*While it’s actually over 1,300 miles from Fort Worth to DC, Lee made her journey partly by car—though she did walk five miles each day. But hey, she’s 90 years old—give her a break!

And Oh, Yeah: She’s 90 years old.

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Washingtonian.

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Associate Editor

Caroline Cunningham joined Washingtonian in 2014 after moving to the DC area from Cincinnati, where she interned and freelanced for Cincinnati Magazine and worked in content marketing. She currently resides in College Park.