It was not unexpected that this Saturday’s 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington is evoking strong emotions. The event is being held with the first African-American President in the White House, the national memorial to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. standing majestically on the National Mall, and against the backdrop of a series of events that have reminded the nation fifty years has not eviscerated racism in America. The thousands of articles and video segments, and events marking this weekend’s event has stirred strong feelings among Blacks old enough to remember the 1963 march, those old enough to recall being told of the Great March by older family members, and younger Blacks whose interest has been piqued by all the reminiscing. It is understandable given the importance of the 1963 March on Washington to successive civil rights victories that were pivotal in defeating Jim Crow in the 1960s.
Still, we caution that reminiscing must be done with some restraint and we cannot allow Saturday’s event to simply be a moment of nostalgia. The 50th commemoration must be approached with the same sort of conviction that marchers had when they arrived in the nation’s capital on August 28, 1963. De jure segregation might have fallen but institutional racism still persists and a new effort is needed to combat the vestiges of white supremacy that still persist. A renewed commitment is needed to counter racial profiling by law enforcement, mass incarceration of African-Americans fueled by a profit driven, private correctional industry, pervasive employment discrimination and long-term joblessness among African-Americans, gun violence in Black neighborhoods and unacceptably high rates of failure among African-American students.
Nostalgia has its place this weekend but the Black community in the United States has been in a malaise for too long. We need to recognize the valiant foot soldiers of the movement this weekend and pay homage to a collection of leaders – M.L. King, Coretta Scott King, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, Floyd McKissick, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Ralph Abernathy, Dorothy Height, Thurgood Marshall – and others who were at the forefront of the struggle in 1963 but have had their sunset. We need to embrace the past but energize the future, and move with determination to confront the ills that still beset the African-American community.
If it were up to us we would have marked this weekend’s anniversary of the March on Washington with the laying of wreaths at the Lincoln Memorial and a simple service of prayer and remembrance. We would have preferred a mass demonstration in Chicago where Black children are being murdered and maimed by gun violence, or Detroit where the city is in bankruptcy, or New York City where a mayor supports the criminalization of blackness through “stop and frisk” assault, or New Orleans, still not fully recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina eight years ago. We might have also preferred a march focused on young people, led by young people and held as a platform to give young people a voice.
As hundreds of thousands of people, of all ages, races, ethnicities and sexual orientations, descend on the nation’s capital we remind that the focus must return to justice. It is only when the collective community returns to a sense of controlled and directed outrage against continued injustices will we regain the momentum of 50 years ago. We must recognize that times are different and the conditions for social action that existed then no longer hold sway. There is however an even greater opportunity with the advent of technology to forge a new movement that will effect even deeper and more lasting change than what transpired after the 1963 March on Washington. Our challenge is to embrace these new tools and combine them with traditional means of advocacy that worked well on our behalf in the past. The potential for moving a new agenda is huge but we must begin to let the past go and realize that our future is promising if we choose to go forward with conviction and courage.
It is our hope that participants in Saturday’s march and the millions that will observe the event on television and over the Internet will join, if they are not already a member, one of the nation’s civil rights groups or a local community-based organization. We are at an “all hands on deck” moment for the African-American community and we need everyone engaged in the fight for justice and equal rights. We encourage you to join the NAACP, National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), the National Action Network, Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the National Council of Negro Women, your local PTA, support a historically Black college or the hundreds of community groups working diligently to improve conditions in our community. After you march, it is time to get to work.