by Tracy R. Walsh
As America marks the 50th anniversary of the March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Jelani Cobb sees a country beset by contradictions:
There’s a bizarre dissonance that comes with watching the first black Attorney General give a speech to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and recognizing that the themes of his speech might have fit well with those given at the original march, in 1963. … That Eric Holder’s speech made explicit some implied truths – “But for the movement,” he said, “I would not be Attorney General and Barack Obama would not be President”—and nodded toward the humbling tenacity of unnamed thousands is not particularly surprising. That he went on to articulate a demand that the right to vote be protected for every citizen, and that the criminal-justice system be freed of bias, is alternately noteworthy and depressing.
Martin Luther King III agrees there’s far more to be done:
There are many in our nation who thought that the civil rights movement was done. They saw the election of Barack Obama as a moment ushering in a post-racial era in American history. But what happened? You’ve seen a backlash. Leaders of the Republican Party have demonized the president as an outsider, as if he doesn’t belong in the Oval Office. The Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act, which undermines the very work my father gave his life for. And Trayvon Martin has met the same fate as Emmett Till – not just in death, but by virtue of an unfair verdict that aimed to render his life less valuable. This is enough to show that the dream is not yet fulfilled and the mission is ongoing.
Bill Fletcher reminds everyone that it was a march for jobs as well as freedom:
The Americans, a high school history text by publishing giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, tells students that the march was called simply “to persuade Congress to pass the [1963 civil rights] bill.” In reality, the demand for jobs was not a throwaway line designed to get trade union support. Instead, it reflected the growing economic crisis affecting black workers. Indeed, while Dr. King was a major player, the March on Washington did not begin as a classic civil rights march and was not initiated by him. There is one constituency that can legitimately claim the legacy of the march – one that has been eclipsed in both history as well as in much of the lead up to the August 2013 commemorations: black labor.
Imara Jones adds:
Four out of the 10 demands march organizers listed were explicitly economic, and the announcement calling marchers to Washington cited “economic deprivation” as the impetus. Fifty years on, many of the same critical economic challenges the organizers targeted remain unmet. In fact, the African American unemployment rate is higher now than in 1960: roughly 13 percent in 2013 vs. 8 percent in 1963. Moreover, as Robert Fairlie and William Sundstrom laid out in the The American Economic Review, the employment gap between blacks and whites widened in the 1960s and has never closed. These data point to the fact that addressing racial inequality without a steady unwinding of economic injustice hardens and expands white supremacy.
At the same time, Brentin Mock warns that the Dream can’t survive without equal voting rights:
There’s no separating voting rights struggles from civil rights—the former is basically the source code for the latter. Which is why [John] Lewis and civil rights leaders knew back in 1963 that you couldn’t simply fold voting rights into a small section of the Civil Rights Act. It needed its own bill. Without the ability to vote, other civil rights gains would be suboptimal. … [T]he voting rights of African-Americans and people of color are in their most vulnerable position since the [Voting Rights Act of 1965] was passed. This is why the call for Congress to restore VRA and to pass a constitutional amendment that guarantees the right to vote was such a prominent feature of Saturday’s march.
Jamelle Bouie says America should remember the march as “militant and unpopular”:
The striking thing about the original March on Washington 50 years ago is how it wasn’t a moment of interracial unity—at least, not in the way it’s portrayed today. Rather, the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom was militant, a demand for equal treatment under the law and direct investment in the long-neglected fields of black America. It wasn’t a popular agenda. That January, George Wallace was inaugurated governor of Alabama and declared: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” That June, Medgar Evers, field secretary for the NAACP, was assassinated in Mississippi while coming home from a meeting with lawyers. And that September, in retaliation for the march, four little girls would be killed after their church was bombed in Birmingham.
And Peniel E. Joseph thinks it’s worth taking a moment to celebrate what the march achieved:
In one week, during the run-up to two national celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington (the second will occur on Wednesday when Obama makes a speech at the Lincoln Memorial, joined by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and members of the King family), we have witnessed two remarkable events: A black president in a nation founded on racial slavery promotes racial healing and economic equality. And an African-American attorney general vows to wage a robust struggle to defend and restore voting rights that were thought to have been won two generations ago.
Both of these instances attest to how far we have come as a nation since 1963 and the long road that lies ahead.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)