This week we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington which is best known perhaps for the speech delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr., a speech ironically that his advisers did not want him to give. Sadly, 50 years later only one of the speakers from the original march remains alive – John Lewis, now a Congressman, who was just 23 years old at the time of the speech.
It likely goes without saying that 50 years ago, the speakers who addressed the huge throngs could not envision a world in which the African-American Attorney General would be speaking to a crowd 50 years later, and that the African-American President would have a special address from the Lincoln Memorial on the exact date of the anniversary.
“I must say, I feel more than lucky but very blessed to be able to stand here 50 years later and to see the progress we have made,” Congressman Lewis said in a TV interview. “And just to see the changes that have occurred. If someone had told me 50 years ago that an African-American would be in the White House as the President, I probably would have said ‘you’re crazy. You are out of your mind. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ The country is a different country, and we’re better people.”
Attorney General Eric Holder talked of struggle and progress.
“Dr. King’s indelible words helped to alter the course of history, and his work provided the foundation for much of the progress that has followed,” the Attorney General said. “But this morning, as we recommit ourselves to his quest for progress, we must note that in addition to Dr. King, we also stand on the shoulders of untold millions whose names may be lost to history, but whose stories – and contributions – must be remembered and treasured: surely those who stood on this Mall in the summer of 1963 – but we must also remember those who rode buses, sat at lunch counters, stood up to racist governments and governors, and, tragically, those who gave their lives. “
One of the interesting subtexts of the “I have a Dream Speech” of course is that Martin Luther King’s advisers did not want him to give that speech.
In a column today, the Washington Post gives a mea culpa for not covering the speech 50 years ago.
Robert Gaiser, now an associate editor of the Washington Post, was, in 1963, a summer intern.
He writes today, “The Post, however, got embarrassed. The main event that day was what we now call the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech of Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most important speeches in U.S. history. But on the day it was given, The Post didn’t think so. We nearly failed to mention it at all.”
“We were poised and ready for a riot, for trouble, for unexpected events – but not for history to be made,” he recounts. “Baker’s 1,300-word lead story, which began under a banner headline on the front page and summarized the events of the day, did not mention King’s name or his speech. It did note that the crowd easily exceeded 200,000, the biggest assemblage in Washington ‘within memory’ – and they all remained ‘orderly.’ “
“In that paper of Aug. 29, 1963, The Post published two dozen stories about the march. Every one missed the importance of King’s address,” he writes. “The words ‘I have a dream’ appeared in only one, a wrap-up of the day’s rhetoric on Page A15 – in the fifth paragraph. We also printed brief excerpts from the speeches, but the three paragraphs chosen from King’s speech did not include ‘I have a dream.’ “
“I’ve never seen anyone call us on this bit of journalistic malpractice. Perhaps this anniversary provides a good moment to cop a plea. We blew it.”
On Saturday, there was irony too. The original march on Washington was to fight for the Voting Rights Act, which has now been gutted by a recent Supreme Court decision.
“I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Alabama for the right to vote,” the Congressman told the crowd. “I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us.”
Congressman Lewis continued, “You cannot stand by. You cannot sit down. You got to stand up. Speak up. Speak out, and get in the way. Make some noise!”
“The vote is precious, it is almost sacred,” he said. “It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a Democratic society. And we got to use it!”
“The America envisioned at this site 50 years ago – the ‘beloved community’ – has not yet been realized. But half a century after the March, and 150 years after Emancipation, it is finally within our grasp,” Mr. Holder added.
And yet progress is mixed, at best.
A study released this week by the Pew Research Center offers a mixed view of the progress five decades later. There was a heightened sense of racial progress immediately following Barack Obama’s election, but according to the Pew study, that optimism has waned in the last five years.
Despite the general belief that interracial relations between the races has improved, blacks continue to lag behind whites in critical demographic variables such as household income and net worth. 8 in 10 African-Americans believe substantial work remains to be done in order to reach racial equality.
As we have argued, discussions of race, going forward, need to focus on the cycle of poverty, crime and incarceration.
“Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them,” Attorney General Eric Holder said two weeks ago. “It’s clear… too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason. It’s clear, at a basic level, that 20th-century criminal justice solutions are not adequate to overcome our 21st-century challenges. And it is well past time to implement common sense changes that will foster safer communities from coast to coast.”
The work of Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has focused many on the critical link between drug policies, unequal enforcement and the poverty-crime cycle.
The argument of Michelle Alexander is this: “In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.”
Once an individual enters the criminal justice, she argues, “the old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.”
The toughest task perhaps falls to President Obama. The first African-American President will speak to the nation on Wednesday from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in a moment that will mark the 50th anniversary of the King speech.
As Washington Post Columnist Tavis Smiley notes, “Is it appropriate for the president to occupy that sacred space? Does Obama have the moral authority to speak where King spoke? Does anyone?”
He answers his own question with an “I don’t know,” but states, “The future of our democracy is inextricably linked to how seriously we take King’s legacy. A legacy of unarmed truth and unconditional love. A legacy of brilliant prose and prophetic witness.”
Indeed, it is a risky move, inviting calls of arrogance and conceit, and yet at the same time, he has a historic opportunity to become the voice of a nation that is clearly still in need of seeing out its better nature.
As Mr. Smiley notes, “I hope Obama rises to the challenge to be truly King-like, not just King-lite. His speech cannot be full of great sound bites but devoid of sound public policy.”
And he captures the essence, “Obama’s election in 2008 was a good down payment on King’s dream of racial equality, but it did not fulfill the dream. Instead of lecturing black audiences about personal responsibility, as he so often has, now is the time for the president to bear witness to the unrelenting pain and suffering of his most loyal constituency – a constituency still denied true economic freedom by institutional and structural barriers that have yet to be addressed, much less alleviated.”
In perhaps his best speech on the subject following the verdict in the Trayvon Martin killing, “the president did finally give voice to the struggle for human dignity that black men in particular endure almost daily.”
The President said, “There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.”
But can the President follow up his own speech, and that of Eric Holder’s from two weeks ago, with a speech that sounds less like Martin Luther King, Jr., re-hashed and more like the President of the United States fifty years later? That is the key question and his many critics will be waiting to pounce on any missteps.
The President is clearly late to this party, beaten and battered by practices of surveillance that seemed at odds with those of his soaring rhetoric from five years ago. But in an age where John Lewis is the last of the great civil rights leaders and an age where the next generation is struggling to maintain the legacy, Barack Obama stands as the best chance to embody the spirit of Martin Luther King, bringing people together once again to dare to dream for a better future.
—David M. Greenwald reporting