Yesterday in Washington, D.C., people from all over the country converged to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the momentous March on Washington on August 28, 1963. President Obama spoke to the gathering, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the same place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the most famous speeches in American history, the “I Have a Dream” speech.
I was present at that event 50 years ago, a 15 year-old not realizing the import of what I was a part of. But I do recall the sudden hush, even among teens, when Dr. King, who spoke last, began his speech. Then we all fell silent. None of us realized what was to come, Kennedy’s and King’s assassinations, the hard fight for equality that still is not even close to being over – all lay ahead of us at that moment in the nation’s history.
For Jobs and Freedom
The full name of that event was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” That last part tends to be forgotten. Dr. King had made it clear, long before the march, that people cannot be free if they live in poverty. When he was assassinated, five years after the march, he was in Memphis to support the actions of the local garbage men – black men – in their efforts to attain a living wage. In Dr. King’s view, freedom was equated with economic justice.
The 1963 march was organized by a group of civil rights, labor, and religious organizations. Estimates of the number of participants varied from 200,000 to 300,000. The march was an important part of the rapidly expanding civil rights movement, which involved demonstrations and nonviolent direct action across the United States. It also marked the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln.
The march is widely credited with helping to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act changed the landscape of politics in America. Without its effects over the past five decades the election of Barack Obama in 2008 would not have been possible.
It is hard to explain to people today just what an unprecedented event this march was. Unprecedented and frightening to many people in 1963. Civil rights activists across the country received bomb threats. Five airplanes were grounded on the morning of August 28 due to bomb threats. Dr. King and Roy Wilkins, one of the march’s organizers, received death threats. There was talk from some politicians and the news media that the march might devolve into violence.
The government panicked. The National Guard was mustered. There were soldiers at Union Station. Liquor sales in Washington were banned. Although one of the officially stated purposes of the march was to support the civil rights bill introduced by the Kennedy Administration, several of the speakers criticized the proposed law as insufficient. Two government agents stood by in a position to cut power to the microphone if necessary. Try to image all that happening today.
Many federal officials were not happy about the march, but when it was understood that it was going to happen, the Kennedy administration finally took action on the civil rights bill. On June 11, President Kennedy announced that he would begin to push for civil rights legislation — the law which eventually became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That night, Mississippi activist Medgar Evers was murdered in his own driveway. Such was the atmosphere in this country in which the march would take place.
For many of the participants, the march was a moment that changed their lives. People felt uplifted by it and many became involved in making their community and the nation a better place. Many also took solace in the march during the years to come when there were times that the struggle for racial equality seemed more distant than ever.
Goals Not Met
Many of the march’s primary goals — including decent housing, integrated education, and widespread employment at living wages — have not been accomplished. While a segment of black America is doing well, for many the dream of equal opportunity has not been realized.
In New York City, our research at the Community Service Society has shown that as much as 50 percent of black men are unemployed, less than 15 percent of black students graduate high school with a Regents diploma, and 188,000 of our youth – ages 16 to 24 – are neither in school nor in the work force. In some ways, we are worse off than we were in the 1960’s.
A great deal more progress is needed if we are to achieve Dr. King’s vision of a just society. And most Americans agree. A recent survey on race by the Pew Research Center found that 80 percent of all Americans believe that more needs to be done to achieve racial equality.