Fifty years ago, August 28, 1963, “The Million Man March on Washington, D.C., for Jobs and Freedom,” woke America’s slumbered conscience to the inequalities between Blacks and Whites, and poor and rich. On June 12th of that year, Medgar Evers, a black man who was the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi, was shot in the back and killed for his support of civil rights – just hours after President John F. Kennedy’s speech in support of civil rights.
During that same year, bombings, lynchings, and other violence against those taking stands for equality and justice ensued in our nation. Months later after the “March,” President Kennedy himself was assassinated for his own support of civil rights.
100 years earlier, in 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to free all slaves in the United States, and give them voting rights. But a law that ensured their freedom from slavery and to vote had not ensured their freedom from oppression and discrimination. Jim Crow laws “legally” kept Blacks “in their place” throughout the South, and discrimination persisted throughout the country 100 years after they were declared free. Intimidation and violence made “voting rights” a mockery of American justice.
The “March” was organized to protest inequities in society that effectively nullified “freedom” to Blacks and other minorities, and to advocate for justice in jobs for the poor in this country. The set of goals agreed upon by organizers were:
• Passage of meaningful civil rights legislation;
• Immediate elimination of school segregation;
• A program of public works, including job training, for the unemployed;
• A Federal law prohibiting discrimination in public or private hiring;
• A $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide;
• Withholding Federal funds from programs that tolerate discrimination;
• Enforcement of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution by reducing congressional representation from States that disenfranchise citizens;
• A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to currently excluded employment areas;
• Authority for the Attorney General to institute injunctive suits when constitutional rights are violated.
The March, with 200,000 to 300,000 present, is best remembered for the conscience raising oratory of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Perhaps it was closer to a sermon than a speech, as some have remarked that he transformed what was a podium into a pulpit. King was not the keynote speaker, but his eloquence and the truth of his convictions resonated with oppressed people everywhere – not only in the U.S., but throughout the world.
His dream, wrapped in the visions of the religious prophets and of our nation’s founding fathers, was a dream that would have us to see others as we see ourselves and to see that character alone -not skin color, economic circumstance, or any other factor- is the only criterion we should have in judging others. His words made us own up to the logic of our words, that if we declare our nation as one of equality, then we must treat people equally and to not regard anyone as having more or less worth than another.
The resonance and power of his words and those of the other speakers on that day had a profound effect on the American public, and this in turn gave courage to their representatives and senators to pass in the next year, The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the following year the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Today, we still face inequalities. Ironically, in the face of the 50th anniversary of the March, numerous states are adopting voter suppression laws to discourage poor and minority citizens from voting. Advocates for raising the minimum wage of $7.25/hr., which is far from a “living wage,” is being contested by many in positions of wealth and power, even as was done 50 years ago. Social injustice, racism, poverty, constitutional freedoms to privacy and from unwarranted search, torture, health care inequality, and the perpetuation of militarism, war, and violence (e.g., in “Stand Your Ground” laws) remind us that we have very far to go before Rev. King’s dream, and that of Jesus and the prophets, will be realized.
In some ways, we have made significant progress in the last 50 years. Minorities are freer to vote than then, though whether that remains the case is still to be determined. Schools, bathrooms, lunch counters, and other facilities are no longer segregated. And the fact that we now have an African American President would have been unthinkable 50 years ago.
And yet, we still have people today disguising their racism by trying to nullify the legitimacy of his presidency by false claims that he is not a U.S. citizen. Barack Obama is the only U.S. President to ever have to publically produce his birth certificate to validate his citizenship. And while he was a member of the United Church of Christ as a Senator in Illinois, he continues to have false claims that he is a Muslim, which also should not be an issue for a democratically elected official.
Thankfully, the church continues to have some of its ministers and laity at the forefront of combatting social injustices and discrimination in our society. While the church is rightly criticized on the whole for turning a blind eye to restrictions on freedoms and systemic immorality that violates the dignity of “the least of these,” it still has its share of prophets who continue to forge us forward into freedom, justice, peace, and compassion.
In his speech today, Rev. King’s son reminded us of King’s vision of agape love – the same unconditional love as advocated by Jesus. And his daughter, also a pastor, reminded us of his spiritual discipline of non-violence, also advocated by Jesus. They reminded us that Martin Luther King, Jr., was not only a Doctor, but a Reverend. He was a man of faith – one who believed that the “moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.” It bends that way because of the God in whom Rev. King placed his faith, and for those of all times who affirm the same faith as he himself had.
It is easy to point out what still needs to be done to make his and our dream real in this world. But as many speakers pointed out today, including President Obama, to act as if we have not come a long way from 50 years ago is a disservice to those who gave their hearts and souls, and some their very lives, for the causes of justice, freedom, and equality. Their work has not gone unrecognized, and their faith has not been disavowed.
There are millions around the world who are still inspired and motivated by what they helped to accomplish in our land and in other lands. And we need all that inspiration and motivation to carry on the struggle to make the dream realized; for to act as if we have already achieved it would also be a disservice to those who gave their all and who expected from us to do the same.
Each generation, and each person, must continue the quest for equality, justice, peace, freedom, and the love between all peoples that will be necessary to bring the dream to fruition and to sustain it perpetually – just as did those prophets of old, like Isaiah, who had a dream and had faith that God’s grace, working through people and all creation everywhere, would eventually make it happen. Isaiah was not only the one who envisioned that “the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the kid,” but also that “God will not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteous will judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”
Equality, dignity, justice, and peace are what God desires, so say the prophets of every age. Who are willing to be the prophets today? Who will stand against the injustices and inequalities of contemporary society? Who will keep the dream of Isaiah, Jesus, Rev. King, and the other prophets who walked the path before us alive and healthy? Who will work to sustain the freedoms and the rights of all peoples and all creation? Do you share their dream?