BERKELEY -- Clayborne Carson was 19 when he ignored warnings about the dangers and propensity for violence before hitching a ride with the Indianapolis NAACP to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago this month.

The threats didn't deter him from becoming a part of the largest political rally for civil rights in U.S. history and witnessing Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

"I decided that I was going to go, and I wasn't going to tell my parents," Carson said. "They found out later."

Two decades later, Carson would receive an unexpected phone call from Coretta Scott King asking him to serve as the editor of the King's Papers project.

Carson, a history professor at Stanford University and director of Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, was the keynote speaker Saturday at a community symposium on the 50th anniversary of the freedom march at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.

Bill Doggett, event organizer and producer, said the "mission of this symposium is to be a think tank for Bay Area social progressives inspired by the legacies of the March on Washington."

In his theme, "Looking back and looking forward," Carson said 50 years later America is still in an infancy state of democracy and he suggested that the current political constraints have induced the urgency to engage in a conversation about moving toward a multicultural democracy.

"We are at the point now where we are now asking that question: 'Is it possible to have a multiracial or multicultural democracy?'" Carson ponders.

A multiracial democracy is a conversation that should be a part of America's political agenda. Political parties, private institutions and policymakers should begin having this discussion, he said. The conversation, Carson said, could be the catalyst to expand America's traditional democracy.

Carson challenged and engaged the social progressives in attendance at the symposium suggesting that the young democratic nation needs to immerse itself in self-reflection.

The March on Washington, he said, was initially intended to encourage passage of Kennedy's Civil Rights legislation, but unconsciously this moment in history was the completion of a long historical process that gave the sharecroppers political power.

Student activism played a crucial role 50 years ago just as it does today.

Drew Howard, a student at Starr King School for the Ministry, encouraged student activists to "pick your struggle."

"When you pick your struggle, you pick your passion and you become committed to the struggle. Therefore you can fight the injustices and oppressions you see in the world," he said.

Reiss W. Potterveld, acting president of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, reflected on the meaning on the March on Washington today.

"The march was one of those moments that shaped us as people who were committed to trying to make our societies more equal, more just and fair with opportunity for all people, so that's still alive."

The March on Washington is featured in the new PBS documentary "The March," premiering at 8 p.m. on Aug. 27, the eve of the 50th anniversary of the demonstration.