As preparations continue for the 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington my thoughts are focused on the tangible changes in America that event triggered. Framed by a civil rights movement that had been gaining traction since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and the Montgomery bus boycott one year later, the march was the climax of decades long struggle to address injustices cast upon the descendants of slaves. After more than a quarter million people, of all races and faiths, converged on the nation’s capital, historic civil rights and voting rights legislation was passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson in the two years after the march.
As if an omen of the dark turn the nation was about to take, marchers would hear over the public address system that the brilliant sociologist and NAACP founder Dr. W.E.B. DuBois had passed away the night before in Accra, Ghana. DuBois’ residence in Ghana and passing in the new West African nation was somewhat symbolic of the distance between the “race man” and the country he desperately wanted to fulfill its promise to its African people. Soon the celebratory atmosphere and hopefulness the March on Washington created gave way to the despair of urban decay, riots in Watts, Newark and Detroit, and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy in a five year span. Suddenly, the “dream” of which Dr. King spoke with passion and conviction on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was transformed into more of a nightmare more appropriate to Dante’s Inferno than the grand experiment crafted by the nation’s Founding Fathers in Philadelphia.
I was on the Mall with hundreds of thousands of other faithful for the 20th anniversary of the Great March in 1983. On a sweltering hot August day in the nation’s capital some of that hopefulness still existed. And there was still some degree of dreaming among those gathered. The mood among African-Americans and white progressives was dark because Republican President Ronald Reagan was pushing the nation right; working to dismantle the civil rights machinery that served to define the victory of the movement. Still, there was a palpable buzz among the crowd because one of Dr. King’s former lieutenants, Rev. Jesse Jackson, was making noise about a possible presidential run in 1984. Weeks earlier I had attended the Operation PUSH convention in Atlanta and there was a real sense of anticipation that Jackson would enter the race. What tied the 1963 march and its 20th year commemoration was that during both events African-Americans could still dream of a reformed America and an emancipated existence.
As we approach the 50th commemoration I am not certain if we can dream or contemplate what should be the dream. And, quite frankly, I have a sense that too much dreaming is dangerous. Where Dr. King articulated a vision that was consistent with the ideals espoused in our nation’s founding, our struggle today is both the ideals and the hope that Blacks will ever be afforded their full rights is fading fast. This time we must turn our attention to the promissory note to Black America Dr. King said the nation had signed but reneged on payment.
This march will take place with an African-American sitting as the commander-in-chief in the Oval Office. Few in1963 could have thought it possible for a Black man to be the object of attention when the strains of “Hail to the Chief” are played in recognition of the President of the most powerful nation on earth. Yet, for all the symbolism behind the election of President Obama, a sense of dread among African-Americans is sweeping over the land. A young Black man, Trayvon Martin, is murdered and a Florida jury appears to have borrowed a page from the southern justice manual of the 1960’s and let his killer walk free. Black boys are being suspended and expelled from school at a disproportionate rate than their white peers. Black girls are suddenly becoming the next target demographic for the country’s profit driven criminal justice system. The Supreme Court has been hijacked by conservatives, including an African-American, and in one week it set back affirmative action, voting rights and the right to litigate a termination that is the result of retaliation by an employer after an employee has complained of discriminatory treatment. So, we are in chaos, too challenged to hope and too wronged to dream.
And that might be a good thing.
For 50 years we have invested in Dr. King’s dream and honored his memory and legacy by doing so. It is now time to turn inward and determine precisely the extent we wish to alter structural barriers and the degree to which we acknowledge that those same barriers might be impenetrable for the foreseeable future. It is a sobering thought but a truth we must confront. The Supreme Court and most of the federal circuits lean conservative, and the House of Representative could remain in Republican hands for the next several Congress’ due to redistricting. A large segment of the African-American community suffers from chronic joblessness and even those who are holding onto middle class status are losing their grip. Unlike the 1960’s there is no movement and unlike 1983 we are not pining for a Black presidential candidate because we have a Black President. What we don’t have is a sense of how we bring about the systemic change that fulfills our citizenship. With each passing year the distance between the hopefulness of 1963 and the despair of present times grows wider.
We will march on August 24 and some of us will still dream. I go into this march with my eyes wide open. My focus for whatever time I have left in this life is on action; concrete efforts to improve educational outcomes among Black children, reduce the mass incarceration of Blacks, protect children from gang violence and deprogram young Black men from the allure of guns, and expand economic opportunity for the “least of these” to improve their quality of life. A big lift? Absolutely. But it points not to a dream but to the work that must be done to allow us to dream again.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.