Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday, August 28, 2013, in the very same place at the very same hour where 50 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged America to overturn the injustices that kept America from fulfilling its promise as a nation, America’s first African-American President spoke of progress but laid out the challenges that remain.
President Barack Obama did not try to match the soaring rhetoric of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream" Speech. He did not use imagery and metaphor. He spoke plainly and deliberately,
He did not describe a dream. He described the tasks that lay ahead.
The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington was different in so many ways than the 1963 gathering which drew 250,000 - an unprecedented number. The visuals were entirely different – you did not have the jam-crammed steps and the river of people crowding all around the Memorial and Martin Luther King, Jr., himself – 9/11 security have changed all that, and the event was divided in two parts, the Saturday August 24 gathering and the August 28 gathering which featured President Obama's address, a day marked by intermittent rain.
There weren't the posters decrying Jim Crow Laws, but as Reverend. Al Sharpton said, "Jim Crow is gone, but his son, James Crow Jr., Esquire, has devised new ways to revive voter suppression and shackle people in poverty."
The tens of thousands who assembled did not have the same fear of being attacked by a mob, beaten by police, even assassinated like Medgar Evers just a month before the March in 1963, or the brutal murder of 14-year old Emmett Till. But you had the lingering agony of Trayvon Martin's senseless death and the acquittal of his killer, shielded by a Stand Your Ground law.
As President Obama said, "We might not face the same dangers of 1963, but the fierce urgency of now remains."
Most notably, this was a March that was massively inclusive of people and issues – rights for women’s, disabled, immigrants and Native Americans, union workers, environmental justice, economic justice as people struggle for a living wage. It was about freedom from fear of gun violence, freedom from fear of lack of health care, freedom to vote and be represented fairly, even full freedom to residents of Washington DC, who pay $3.5 billion in taxes but do not have a voting member of Congress.
"The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history; that we are masters of our fate," President 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...."
And it is remarkable to see what has transpired over just two or three generations. The people who took to the podium who have achieved such prominence - like John Lewis, the only one of the nine speakers at the March on Washington 50 years ago, who had been beaten to an inch of his life as he attempted to challenge segregation and voter suppression.
But what should have been a celebration had a more sober tone, following the US Supreme Court's overturn of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, passed after such violence and sacrifice in 1965, the assault on women's rights, the growing disparity of income and expansion of poverty, the inequities in the justice system.
These dual themes were best expressed by Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network:
"Dr. King, and those that fought with him, they fought and they beat Jim Crow," Sharpton declared. :We come today to not only celebrate and commemorate, but we come as the children of Dr. King. to say that we are going to face Jim Crow's children. because Jim Crow had a son called James Crow Jr., Esquire. He writes voting suppression laws and puts it in language that looks different but the results are the same. They come with laws that tell people to stand their ground. they come with laws to tell people to stop-and-frisk. but I come to tell you just like our mothers and fathers beat Jim Crow we will beat James Crow Jr., Esquire.
"We saw Dr. King and the dream cross the Red Sea of apartheid and segregation. but we have to cross the Jordan of unequal economic path. we have to cross the Jordan of continued discrimination and massive incarceration. We've got to keep on fighting ... and stand up and substantiate that the dream was not for one generation, the dream goes on until the dream is achieved. ...We thank a mighty God for giving us a Martin Luther King. We thank the mighty God that brought us a long way. He brought us from disgrace to amazing grace . He brought us from the butler to the president. He brought us from Beulah to Oprah. he brought us a mighty long way. we thank God for the dream and we're going to keep on fighting until the dream is a reality.
It’s message was expanded and also more nuanced..
The speakers, themselves, were reminders of accomplishments over the course of just a generation.
John Lewis, the youngest of the nine speakers at the March 50 years ago and the only one still living, a man who had been beaten to an inch of his life as he traveled with the Freedom Riders, and jailed multiple times, looked out at the tens of thousands gathered on the National Mall to address them as a US Congressman. "And the dean of the civil rights movement once said, we may have come here on different ships, but we all are in the same boat now. So it doesn't matter whether they're black or white, Latino, Asian- American or Native American, whether we or gay or straight -- we are one people, we are one family, we are all living in the same house -- not just the American house, but the world house," he declared. "And when we finally accept these truths, then we will be able to fulfill Dr. King's dream to build a beloved community, a nation and a world at peace with itself."
Women who had no role on the podium 50 years ago, today spoke as leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus, president of SEIU, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and even the CEO of Martin Luther King Jr.'s successor civil rights organization, the King Center for Nonviolent Social change, his daughter, Dr. Bernice King.
But what should have been a celebration had a more sober tone, following the US Supreme Court's overturn of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, passed after such violence and sacrifice in 1965, the assault on women's rights, the growing disparity of income and expansion of poverty, the inequities in the justice system - issues that speaker after speaker addressed.
The accomplishments of people who grew up in a world of the Civil Rights Act, Voting rights Act, fair housing law – Oprah perhaps the best symbol of all.
And it is proof-positive that America is a better place because of inclusion. As President Obama said:
And because they kept marching, America changed. Because they marched, a Civil Rights law was passed. Because they marched, a Voting Rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes. Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed, and Congress changed, and, yes, eventually, the White House changed.
Because they marched, America became more free and more fair -- not just for African Americans, but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans; for Catholics, Jews, and Muslims; for gays, for Americans with a disability. America changed for you and for me. and the entire world drew strength from that example, whether the young people who watched from the other side of an Iron Curtain and would eventually tear down that wall, or the young people inside South Africa who would eventually end the scourge of apartheid.
Those are the victories they won, with iron wills and hope in their hearts. That is the transformation that they wrought, with each step of their well-worn shoes. That’s the debt that I and millions of Americans owe those maids, those laborers, those porters, those secretaries; folks who could have run a company maybe if they had ever had a chance; those white students who put themselves in harm’s way, even though they didn't have; those Japanese Americans who recalled their own internment; those Jewish Americans who had survived the Holocaust; people who could have given up and given in, but kept on keeping on, knowing that “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.
Obama referred to this juxtaposition of celebration and challenge, saying:
On the battlefield of justice, men and women without rank or wealth or title or fame would liberate us all in ways that our children now take for granted, as people of all colors and creeds live together and learn together and walk together, and fight alongside one another, and love one another, and judge one another by the content of our character in this greatest nation on Earth.
To dismiss the magnitude of this progress -- to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed -- that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years. Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Martin Luther King Jr. -- they did not die in vain. Their victory was great.
But 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 by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote, or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all, and the criminal justice system is not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails, it requires vigilance.
And we'll suffer the occasional setback. But we will win these fights. This country has changed too much. People of goodwill, regardless of party, are too plentiful for those with ill will to change history’s currents.
And he reminded the assembled that the 1963 March was about more than voting rights, but economic opportunity, as well - something that Obama has been working toward throughout his Presidency, with his America Jobs Bill, the Better Bargain for the Middle Class agenda, though he has been thwarted at every step.
And so as we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks could join the ranks of millionaires. It was whether this country would admit all people who are willing to work hard regardless of race into the ranks of a middle-class life.
The test was not, and never has been, whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many -- for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call -- this remains our great unfinished business.
We shouldn’t fool ourselves. The task will not be easy. Since 1963, the economy has changed. The twin forces of technology and global competition have subtracted those jobs that once provided a foothold into the middle class -- reduced the bargaining power of American workers. And our politics has suffered. Entrenched interests, those who benefit from an unjust status quo, resisted any government efforts to give working families a fair deal -- marshaling an army of lobbyists and opinion makers to argue that minimum wage increases or stronger labor laws or taxes on the wealthy who could afford it just to fund crumbling schools, that all these things violated sound economic principles. We'd be told that growing inequality was a price for a growing economy, a measure of this free market; that greed was good and compassion ineffective, and those without jobs or health care had only themselves to blame.
And then, there were those elected officials who found it useful to practice the old politics of division, doing their best to convince middle-class Americans of a great untruth -- that government was somehow itself to blame for their growing economic insecurity; that distant bureaucrats were taking their hard-earned dollars to benefit the welfare cheat or the illegal immigrant.
Obama then laid out his case and the call to action:
And then, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways, as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support -- as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.
All of that history is how progress stalled. That's how hope was diverted. It's how our country remained divided. But the good news is, just as was true in 1963, we now have a choice. We can continue down our current path, in which the gears of this great democracy grind to a halt and our children accept a life of lower expectations; where politics is a zero-sum game where a few do very well while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking economic pie -- that’s one path. Or we can 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. 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.
And I believe that spirit is there, that truth force inside each of us. I see it when a white mother recognizes her own daughter in the face of a poor black child. I see it when the black youth thinks of his own grandfather in the dignified steps of an elderly white man. It’s there when the native-born recognizing that striving spirit of the new immigrant; when the interracial couple connects the pain of a gay couple who are discriminated against and understands it as their own.
That’s where courage comes from -- when we turn not from each other, or on each other, but towards one another, and we find that we do not walk alone. That’s where courage comes from.
And with that courage, we can stand together for good jobs and just wages. With that courage, we can stand together for the right to health care in the richest nation on Earth for every person. With that courage, we can stand together for the right of every child, from the corners of Anacostia to the hills of Appalachia, to get an education that stirs the mind and captures the spirit, and prepares them for the world that awaits them.
With that courage, we can feed the hungry, and house the homeless, and transform bleak wastelands of poverty into fields of commerce and promise....
We might not face the same dangers of 1963, but the fierce urgency of now remains. We may never duplicate the swelling crowds and dazzling procession of that day so long ago -- no one can match King’s brilliance -- but the same flame that lit the heart of all who are willing to take a first step for justice, I know that flame remains....
Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day -- that change does not come from Washington, but to Washington; that change has always been built on our willingness, We The People, to take on the mantle of citizenship -- you are marching.
And that’s the lesson of our past. That's the promise of tomorrow -- that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it. That when millions of Americans of every race and every region, every faith and every station, can join together in a spirit of brotherhood, then those mountains will be made low, and those rough places will be made plain, and those crooked places, they straighten out towards grace, and we will vindicate the faith of those who sacrificed so much and live up to the true meaning of our creed, as one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Obama sat with two other presidents - President Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and with the daughters of two other presidents, Caroline Kennedy, daughter of John F. Kennedy who met with the 1963 March organizers and was fearful of what they could accomplish and whether there would be violence. Kennedy sent a Civil Rights bill to Congress which languished; until Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Southerner who was firm in his commitment to civil rights going back to his time as a teacher in an impoverished Mexican-American community, and signed into law, the legacy of which he was most proud as his daughter, Lynda Bird Johnson Robb reminded. It was a clear arc of the civil rights movement.
Indeed, it infuriates me when I hear people in the crowd complaining that Obama hasn't done enough to specifically address racism during his time in office. But he clearly has worked to address the core issues that perpetuate inequity and injustice , though he has been impeded at every step.
But think about the Martin Luther King monument, the Rosa Parks monument in the Capitol Rotunda, the Smithsonian's Museum of African American History & Culture under construction on the National Mall - these are monuments, symbols, to be true, all of them materializing during Obama's Presidency.
He consistently speaks out to address the very inequities, impediments to equal opportunity and the American Dream that the King followers expound. He has consistently worked to address a tax code, public education, college affordability, universal health care, immigration reform, gun violence, home ownership, climate change. And he spoke most personally after Professor Henry Gates Lewis controversy, and after the Trayvon Martin slaying and again after the decision that set his killer free.
Obama's speech was the opposite of political - he didn't pander with phrases, rhetorical flourishes and the promises the people wanted to hear. He spoke of the things that he has been calling for, working toward since his candidacy and throughout his presidency - living wage, education, immigration reform, gun violence, climate change, voting rights. None of what he said was new - it was all what he has been consistently working towards.
The program was notably absent of Republicans. Not a single one. George HW Bush and George W Bush both invited, had health issues. But a general invitation went out to every Republican in Congress - none responded, and then complained no Republicans were included and claimed the 20 days notice was not sufficient. But what could they have said about jobs and justice - the themes of the March? What would they have said about voter suppression and women's reproductive freedom? What would they have said about immigrants and gun safety and climate change? What would they have said about public education and Head Start? About access to health care?
All too swiftly though after the crowds had disappeared, another issue overwhelmed the message of justice and jobs: Syria.
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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