Marking the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is about history that flows into the present.
It is about recognizing what a difference it makes when we address problems, and what a mess it makes when we don’t.
Because the country passed civil-rights legislation in the 1960s, if I have a little money, I can eat in the same restaurants, live in the same neighborhood, ride on the same public transportation as my fellow citizens.
And because the country changed in response to the civil-rights movement, I had a better shot at getting a job my older relatives would never have considered possible.
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Millions of Americans saw their lives improved, and the entire country gained as all those citizens advanced in education and the workplace.
We also have a more diverse country than we had 50 years ago because restrictions on immigration from nonwhite countries were changed, which brought even more talent.
We are moving toward marriage equality. We even have a president who has a black father.
The people who secured those benefits a half-century ago faced domestic terrorism, risking beatings, shootings and bombings.
But because the country faltered before solving some of the problems that grew from past racism and injustice, we have massive imprisonment, ongoing segregation, crime-plagued neighborhoods, struggles in education, and huge economic disparities that hobble black, Latino and Native American citizens disproportionately.
Because we haven’t fully adopted the fairness and justice that the first march sought, we find Americans of all races divided into haves and have-nots. When unfairness is acceptable, it doesn’t stop with one group or two.
Bill Russell, the basketball great, sat in the front row 50 years ago, and Wednesday he spoke, saying, “Lately I’ve heard a lot about how far we’ve come, but from my point of view you measure progress by how far we have to go.” Keep on keeping on, he told the diverse crowd.
And that is what Wednesday
was about, too, an ongoing process of realizing full democracy that began at the country’s birth and that from time to time needs an injection of energy.
Speakers at the original event delivered a report card on America’s progress 100 years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and they made it clear that the status of black Americans was part of a broader battle between those who would push America to live up to its promise to all citizens to be a just and free society, and those who would damage community and nation in pursuit of their individual interests.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s brilliant speech was at the center of this year’s remembrance, but other voices from 1963 deserve more attention than they get today. A. Philip Randolph, organized the march.
He also organized and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and was concerned about economic inequality, something we are still wrestling with.
President Obama, in his remarks Wednesday, adopted Randolph’s emphasis on economic inequality and the benefits to all Americans of more fairness.
He said, the struggle, “ … is not confined to the Negro, nor is it confined to civil rights, for our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not.”
Randolph said, “And we know that we have no future in a society in which 6 million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty.” Well, you know where we stand today.
Randolph was looking past immediate demands toward the future.
He said the movement wanted integrated public schools, but also adequate funding. It sought access to hotels and restaurants, but “those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them.” The movement sought fair employment practices, but he asked what would that mean if technology eliminated jobs?
He said he wanted a society that valued people more than property or profits. “It falls to the Negro to reassert this proper priority of values because our ancestors were transformed from human personalities into private property” and because black people were the worst victims of unemployment. The unemployment rate for black workers today is double the white rate. The movement achieved about half of what it sought. Schools were partially integrated before sliding backward.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped more Americans have a say in their democracy, but opponents continue to find ways around it, and they’ve found an ally in the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned a key part of the law this year.
The ideas expressed by leaders of the civil-rights movement seemed radical to many Americans in 1963.
In his speech, Randolph said that some “would have social peace at the expense of social and racial justice. They are more concerned with easing racial tension than enforcing racial democracy.”
Randolph could have been speaking today: “Look for the enemies of Medicare, of higher minimum wages, of Social Security, of federal aid to education and you will find the enemy of the Negro, the coalition of Dixiecrats and reactionary Republicans that seek to dominate the Congress.”
OK, things have changed since then. Reactionary Republicans actually do dominate Congress now.
Sadly, Americans don’t know enough of our history to understand the foundations of current circumstances, but the gathering this week gave us a reason to look back and to move forward.
An understanding of our shared history is necessary for breaking down walls that keep Americans from recognizing we’re allin the same boat, our fates are bound together, and we need to be paddling together toward a closer realization of the ideals of freedom, justice and equality that we claim to love.
All those people at the Lincoln Memorial this week and millions more are re-energized for the journey.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org