As the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom culminated in a rally before the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was not one of the speakers, rather he and his aides were huddled before a television in the White House, not knowing how this massive and unprecedented event would proceed or what its political implications would be.
The final speaker of the day, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King electrified the crowd -- and the nation and the world -- with what would become known as his "I Have a Dream" speech, centered on the need for full civil rights for blacks 100 years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
The event drew at least 250,000 people from around the U.S., a diverse group of blacks, whites, students, activists, and ordinary people, together making urgent but peaceful demands for jobs and racial justice. King’s speech included a rousing vision of unity, with echoes of Woody Guthrie’s song "This Land is Your Land" -- "So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York ... Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring."
King concluded, "And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’"
Said author James Baldwin, "That day, for a moment, it almost seemed that we stood on a height, and could see our inheritance; perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not forever remain that dream one dreamed in agony."
On Wednesday, the commemoration of the March on Washington featured the President of the United States -- Barack Obama, an African-American -- giving the culminating speech. His presence alone spoke volumes of how much has been accomplished for civil rights in 50 years. So did the presence of Congressman John Lewis, D-Georgia, the last living speaker from the 1963 event, when he was a young battle-hardened veteran of the Civil Rights movement. He also spoke on Wednesday.
In another sign of how mainstream civil rights have become, two former presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, also attended the commemoration and spoke. Yet, challenges to civil rights remain. Laws intending to suppress voter turnout are springing up across the country -- including the deep South -- justified by claims of massive voter fraud that just doesn’t exist. Earlier this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- arguably one of the fruits of the March on Washington -- making it more difficult to overturn new voter suppression measures in places like Texas and North Carolina.
And the need for economic justice remains, also. King’s "dream" speech concentrated on civil rights but much of his effort in the last years of his life concentrated on peace and economic justice. In fact, he was in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, the day he was murdered, in support of striking public sanitation workers.
In his speech, Mr. Obama celebrated those ordinary people who came to Washington 50 years ago: "A lifetime of indignities had taught them that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us. They had learned through hard experience what Frederick Douglas once taught: that freedom is not given; it must be won through struggle and discipline, persistence and faith."
While it dishonors those who marched and worked and even died for freedom to say that nothing has really changed, the president noted that "we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency. Whether it’s by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all in the criminal justice system and not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails -- it requires vigilance."
Mr. Obama noted that those who gathered 50 years ago were also seeking jobs as well as justice. "Not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?" The president cited the growing inequality between rich and poor, the loss of jobs to technology and globalization. He noted the gridlock in Washington and those who would blame workers and the poor for their own plight. We can choose to continue on this path in which our democracy grinds to a halt and children accept a life of lower expectations, "where a few do very well while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking economic pie."
But we could as a nation have the courage to change.
"The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history, that we are masters of our fate," Mr. Obama said. "But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together. We’ll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago."
~ Mark E. Rondeau