Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, an epic event that altered the face of modern America, bringing into sharp focus obvious racial injustices and the need for reform.
Some 250,000 peaceful protesters — black and white citizens of all ages from all over the country — massed in front of the Lincoln Memorial to pay witness to one of the greatest speeches in American history.
Martin Luther King Jr., a black Southern preacher and leader of the civil rights movement, set aside in midstream his prepared speech and, at the urging of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, launched into his infamous “I Have a Dream” sermon. The message bears repeating:
“I say to you my friends … even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream,” King spoke to the spellbound crowd. “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream … I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
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On a day when the Washington, D.C., members of the establishment feared violence and chaos, confrontation and a mob-like scene, they were greeted instead with a dignified, peaceful protest, a demonstration with a message that could no longer be ignored — equality is an American right embedded in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. America can, and must do better in the workplace, in the schools, in the housing markets and in the voting booths.
The march played a key role in galvanizing support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, each earning a hard-fought majority vote in Congress, despite the determined efforts of Southern Democratic segregationists to defeat them. But don’t underestimate the impact two tragic events in 1963 following the march on the nation’s capitol had on the landmark legislation: the deaths of four little black girls at a church bombing by white supremacists in Birmingham, Ala., and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
It’s one thing to have laws in place. It’s another to change long-held racist beliefs and institutionalized discrimination. Yes, America is a less bigoted place 50 years after the march. But the dream intoned by King remains only partially fulfilled.
Statistics compiled by Time Magazine from several government, nonprofit and academic sources paint a picture of shortcomings and successes in the fight for racial equality.
Blacks make up 14 percent of the U.S. population, but 37 percent of the prison population.
Death rates for African Americans from heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer and homicide outpace those of whites.
At the time of the March on Washington, there were five black members of the House of Representatives, no senators and no president. Fifty years later, the 113th Congress features 43 blacks, a single black senator and a sitting black president.
In 2012, more than five times as many African Americans held college bachelor’s degrees — 21 percent — than did in 1960 when only 4 percent had graduated from college.
Current events offer proof that the promise of “The Dream” has not been met. Think of the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin last year in a Sanford, Fla., neighborhood, or the attempts by several states — with the help of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling — to restrict voting rights, which has a disproportionate effect on minorities and the poor.
Pause a moment Wednesday. Give thanks to those who marched on Washington, D.C., 50 years ago for their civil rights and the rights of generations to come. Then ask yourself: What more can I do to make this country a more just and equitable place?