Fifty Years after the March on Washington


The August 28, 1963, March on Washington was an emotional and political watershed. Over 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial during the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation, which had officially ended slavery in 1863. The highlight of the March was a short speech part sermon that has become a rallying cry for other freedom movements throughout the world. The riveting “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr. was part optimism about the future and part realism that the promises of equality following the Civil War had not yet been met. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the legislative culmination of the civil rights movement and the March. Despite ferocious, often physical opposition, legal segregation was finally ended in the United States.

The recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March in the U.S. was a bittersweet moment. 

As the first black top law-enforcement officer of the United States, Eric Holder, noted, “But for the {civil rights} movement I would not be Attorney General and Barack Obama would not be President.” No one can question that statement. However, a recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court struck down crucial parts of the Voting Rights Act, which will certainly diminish voting possibilities. Incarceration statistics among young blacks remain unacceptable. In spite of the presence of black government officials such as Colin Powell and Susan Rice and a growing black middle class, the United States remains racially biased economically. No one can question that statement either. Political Scientist Andrew Hacker’s description of Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal has not radically changed since the book’s first publication in 1992.

Celebrations of anniversaries are important. They not only bring back memories, they also serve as reminders. The March on Washington in 1963 was part of a movement to redress the remnants of slavery. In 1963, one hundred years after the formal ending, racial inequality was present, especially in the South. Today, much progress has been made; there were 641 African-American mayors in the U.S. in 2008, at least one in each state, including in the South.

Does racism still exist in the United States? Certainly. It would be inconceivable to imagine that it didn’t, just as it would be impossible to imagine that there would be no racism anywhere in the world. The question is to what extent racism exists and what are its consequences. Rights such as the right to vote or to hold office are fundamental human rights that have now been legislated for all. Separate but equal is a thing of the past; official segregation has ended. Moreover, racial profiling, such as for stop and frisk by police officers, has been ruled illegal by a New York judge.

Although there has been progress, economic inequality remains. In 1966, 42% of African Americans lived in poverty, in 2011, 28%. In 1963, the typical black family’s income was 58% of the typical white family; the most recent statistic is 66%. The black median household income today stands at $33,460 while all races are at $50,502.

“I Have a Dream” was a pivotal moment for the United States and for many of the generation who participated in the civil rights movement. But the dream has not been totally fulfilled. Watching the speech the other night brought back memories of the energy and optimism of that time. I taught school in Harlem from 1969 to 1972 and witnessed apartheid-like conditions in the black community. A report card 50 years after the March does not give flying colors. While there has been progress, we have not yet overcome.



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