Much accomplished, much undone
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – more widely known today by the simple shorthand of the March on Washington – happened 50 years ago this Wednesday, with the landmark being commemorated by a flood of remembrances and stock-taking on how far the African American community and other minority groups have traveled in the half-century since Martin Luther King Jr. concluded the event with his “I Have a Dream” speech.
The short answer: Very far, and not far enough.
Without a doubt, the United States provides a very different landscape for African Americans now that official discrimination and intimidation is no longer sanctioned by law, particularly in the South. When the March on Washington occurred on Aug. 28, 1963, only nine years had passed since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Brown of Education that establishing separate public schools for black and white students was unconstitutional. In the intervening time, Southern white resistance to integration, and conferring the full rights of citizenship on African Americans, had taken vehement and often violent turns. Protestors were attacked by law enforcement and subject to harassment. Just weeks before the March on Washington, Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood in a doorway at his state’s flagship university to unsuccessfully prevent the enrollment of black students. Civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated in Mississippi the following day. Throughout the South, African Americans were barred from everyday facilities like hotels and restaurants.
And though it did not manifest itself with the same ferocity, the North was not untouched by the stain of discrimination. Blacks were prohibited from swimming in certain public pools, and real estate agents were often directed to steer “those people” away from certain neighborhoods.
Within a couple of years of the March on Washington, however, discrimination at the polling place and in public facilities were outlawed thanks to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, both forcefully pushed through Congress by President Lyndon Johnson, who had himself once been a Southern segregationist. Women were not much in evidence at the podium at the March on Washington, but, as the 1960s progressed, the women’s liberation movement brought greater opportunities and rights to women. Fifty years ago, homosexuality was still considered perverse and taboo, so much so that one of the March on Washington’s key organizers, Bayard Rustin, was kept deep in the background because of his sexual orientation. He will be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously when President Obama appears at a 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington.
When Obama appears at the Lincoln Memorial, he will almost certainly outline ground that remains to be covered. As The Washington Post reported last week, income inequality between blacks and whites remains as intractable as it was 50 years ago. In 1963, unemployment in the white community stood at 5 percent and at almost 11 percent for blacks; today it is 6.6 percent in the white community, and 12.6 percent for blacks.
While Obama himself is a powerful symbol of the progress made since 1963, it must be noted that his opponents often dismiss him in racist terms, suggesting that he is “lazy” or that he engages in “shuck and jive” or that he is a closet Muslim who needs to prove his citizenship. The proliferation of voter ID laws in states controlled by Republican legislators and governors, including Pennsylvania, are designed less to prevent chimerical fraud than place barriers in front of minorities and other groups who might be prone to vote against the GOP. The controversies surrounding racial profiling and stop-and-frisk policies demonstrate that prejudice has not been entirely vanquished.
Much has been accomplished, and much still needs to be done.