50 years later, Civil Rights activists connect to the past and look toward the future
By Ove Overmyer
Washington, D.C. -- They carried signs that screamed “Protect Voting Rights,” “Jobs for All” and “Love One Another.” They protested the vigilante killing of an unarmed black teenager from Florida and his killer’s acquittal. They denounced racial profiling in the country’s largest cities. Some attendees openly wept at the moving testimonies delivered from the podium sitting high atop the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Early on in the day, others stood firm arms folded by the reflecting pool staring with a steely gaze as they looked toward the large viewing screens where national leaders shouted words of anger, faith and hope.
A message of cross-generational common cause extended from 1963 as a recurring theme. This isn’t 1963 but 2013, when so many of the issues that gave rise to the March on Washington fifty years ago remain unfulfilled and under siege today. That’s why, on this summer August day, a broad coalition of civil rights organizations, unions, progressive groups and Democratic Party leaders rallied at the National Mall.
Organizers expected 100,000 people to attend the rally and march. The event was homage to a generation of activists that endured fire hoses, police abuse and indignities to demand equality and justice for African Americans.
The National Park Service does not make crowd estimates and organizers did not immediately respond to request for their own.
After the morning speeches in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the event organizers and the tens of thousands of activists proceeded to march by the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial then on to the Washington Monument to honor the fiftieth anniversary of the 1963 march and to dramatize the contemporary fight.
The National Action Network (NAN) was the primary organizer for the march. Founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton in 1991, NAN is one of the leading civil rights organizations in the nation with chapters throughout the entire United States. NAN works within the spirit and tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to promote a modern civil rights agenda that includes the fight for one standard of justice, decency and equal opportunities for all people regardless of race, class, religion, sexual orientation, nationality or gender identity.
The Supreme Court’s decision gutting the Voting Rights Act in late June and the acquittal of George Zimmerman less than three weeks later make this year’s assembly exponentially more urgent with respect to pressuring Congress and arousing the conscience of the nation.
“Just like a lot of other people who believe the 1963 March on Washington was one of the most significant events in American history, we just felt we needed to be part of this today, “ said 71 year-old Michael Searles of Waynesboro, Ga. He added, “We were not disappointed. The speeches we very moving, and I especially liked the Rev. Al Sharpton message.”
Searles also referenced a huge need to educate America about the attack on voting rights. Republicans in southern states, especially North Carolina are shutting down polling places at college campuses and preventing students from running for office.
“One of the main themes today is voting rights, amending state laws like ‘stand your ground’ or local laws like stop-and-frisk, and the whole question of jobs and union-busting,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network, who convened the march along with Martin Luther King III. He added, “Fifty years after the original march for jobs and justice, we have a new version of the same issue. Dreams are for those who won't accept reality as it is, so they dream of what is not there and make it possible.”
In 1963, current Georgia Congressman John Lewis—who nearly died marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama—was the youngest and most controversial speaker at the March on Washington. When Lewis returned to the Lincoln Memorial to address the rally on Saturday, he was the only surviving speaker from that historic August afternoon. “We have come a great distance since that day,” he said at the morning session, “but many of the issues that gave rise to that march are still pressing needs in our society—violence, poverty, hunger, long-term unemployment, homelessness, voting rights and the need to protect human dignity.”
|At 9:00 am, the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and the National Mall begin to grow to tens of thousands of Civil Rights activists. Photo: Ove Overmyer|
There is conclusive evidence that seven Southern states have passed or implemented new unconstitutional restrictions that disproportionately target people of color since the Court’s Voting Rights Act ruling. This follows a presidential election in which voter-suppression efforts took center stage and blacks waited twice as long as whites to vote, on average. On a more structural level, one out of thirteen African-Americans (2.2 million people) cannot vote because of felon disenfranchisement laws—four times higher than the rest of the population.
When it comes to the criminal justice system, there are more black men in prison today than were enslaved in 1850, according to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. African-Americans comprise 13 percent of the population but made up 55 percent of shooting deaths in 2010. Under Florida’s “stand your ground” law, “people who killed a black person walked free 73 percent of the time, while those who killed a white person went free 59 percent of the time,” according to the Tampa Bay Times.
When it comes to the economy, the black unemployment rate (12.6 percent) is nearly double that of whites (6.6 percent), almost the same ratio as in 1963. The average household income for African-Americans ($32,068) lags well below that of white families ($54,620) and declined by 15 percent from 2000 to 2010.
These jarring statistics show a clear need for a twenty-first-century civil rights movement. “After the march, my hope is we will see more people going home being committed to doing work in their own communities,” says Rochester, N.Y. resident and organized labor leader T. Judith Johnson. She added, “The Moral Mondays protests in North Carolina, the sit-ins by the Dream Defenders in Florida and the spontaneous rallies in 100 cities following the George Zimmerman verdict are evidence of a new wave of civil rights activism. I just feel it.”
“We’re seeing the civil rights movement rise again,” says Searles. Johnson added, “This generation is beginning to understand that we have to get back to organizing and movement-building to create better outcomes for our working families.”
For many years, civil rights organizations like the NAACP focused on building institutional power through litigation, lobbying and voting. Though they accomplished a great deal—we now have a two-term African-American president, after all—there’s a growing realization within the civil rights community that the protests and civil disobedience that defined the movement of the 1960s are once again essential to draw more attention to contemporary problems.
“I wish this activism had more outbursts than just in North Carolina and Florida,” says civil rights veteran Julian Bond. “You wish it was twenty times as great, but to see these things that are going on—it’s exciting. These tactics are tried and true. They’ve worked in the past, and they’ll work now.”
Yet while the civil rights coalition is more diverse than it was in 1963—now including supporters from the labor community, women’s rights, environmental, pro-immigration and LGBT groups—the funds are scarce today even as the needs are growing. The declining strength of organized labor, which has accelerated following the passage of anti-union laws in GOP-controlled states since 2010, has drained the coffers of the organizations most accustomed to mobilizing masses of people. “The movement is more financially strapped than it has been in modern memory,” says Ben Jealous of the NAACP.
Another daunting obstacle for the civil rights coalition is the right wing’s success in promoting the notion that historic remedies for centuries of discrimination, like the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action, are no longer needed. “One of the great difficulties we have in helping people understand where we are on civil rights today is the desire of so many people to fix the civil rights movement in historical amber and visit it like a museum, without honoring that movement by being dynamically engaged in the principles that the movement stood for,” says Sherrilyn Ifill, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, another co-sponsor of the march.
Despite all the criticism, the 1963 march remains a singularly important event in American history: the first time the country really understood what the civil rights movement stood for. The effect was greatest on the marchers themselves. “Many of the people at the march had never been to Washington before,” said Julian Bond. “It was evidence to them that they had done something great and that great things would follow.”
Some fifty years later, “there is, unfortunately, too much parallel between now and then,” says Jealous. He added, “Now is the moment for all of us to be re-baptized in the struggle.”