40 years later … Have we overcome yet? – 40th Anniversary of The March on Washington: 1963-2003
By Coretta Scott King Founder, Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change
The day of the Great March on Washington was a day of increasing emotional power. Early in the day we were concerned because preliminary news reports suggested a modest turnout. But a later report indicated that a huge crowd had arrived and more were coming from all directions … I remember having a growing sense that we were experiencing something of profound historical importance. Never before had such a large crowd conducted a nonviolent protest in the nation’s capital. Never before had America given so much attention to the possibility of interracial unity. The collective spirit of everyone gathered seemed almost divinely inspired … When Martin shared his cry for justice and his great dream for America, the spirit of the crowd soared higher still. The American Dream had found its greatest expression in the eloquent plea of a 34-year-old preacher, a proponent of unconditional love, justice for all and brotherhood for humankind.
There on the Mall it seemed as if the beloved community had descended on the capital of America, if only for a few fleeting moments. There was a powerful sense of connection between everyone at the Mall, and by extension those who heard the speech on radio and saw it on television. This day was a turning point for America. We now had a clear vision of the nation we must become to honor the sacred promise of our democracy. We now had our marching orders, and there would be no turning back.
The significance of the massive turnout at the Great March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech on that day was that it helped to insure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. About 50 members of congress present at the Mall as observers left inspired to provide the leadership needed to recruit the support of their colleagues. President Kennedy watched from the White House and the March leadership met with him afterwards in an effort to solidify the nation’s support of the Civil Rights Bill.
The “I Have A Dream” speech is now considered one of the most influential and widely quoted speeches of the 20th century. It remains to this very day the most vivid and eloquent description of the American Dream we have, and its influence is still being felt in the 21st century.
We have not overcome yet. It is true that we have made great progress in many areas. Many more African-Americans and other minorities now live in middle-class comfort. There is more interracial friendship, understanding and goodwill. African-Americans serve in greater numbers in political office, as well as the upper echelon of American business.
Yet, we have a long way to go before we realize Martin’s dream of a nation united in justice, equality and peace. Despite the impressive gains of the last four decades, African-Americans are underrepresented in the U.S. Congress, state legislatures, county commissions and city councils. Nor have we achieved parity of economic opportunity … Racial discrimination and other forms of bigotry remain tenacious evils in our society. Poverty and social injustice still grind the hope out of millions of lives. War and violence continue to afflict our world with increasing brutality and destruction.
But I think we have cause for hope, especially if we can rekindle a new era of social activism and voter participation to achieve the reforms needed to produce genuine equality, economic opportunity for all and peace with justice. If we keep faith with Martin’s teachings and join together with an energized recommitment to create the beloved community, we will one day be celebrating his vision as a glorious reality.
By Rosa Parks Activist and National Symbol of the Movement
I was at the 1963 March on Washington, which grew out of the Montgomery Movement and the other great protests of the 1960s. I regretted at the time, as I said in my book [Rosa Parks: My Story, with Jim Haskins] that women were not permitted to play a greater role in the march.
The planning committee didn’t want Coretta Scott King and the other wives of the male leaders to march with their husbands. Instead, there was a separate procession for them. And although Dorothy Height and I, and Daisy Bates, Josephine Baker and Lena Horne were introduced and made remarks, there were not enough women delivering major speeches. Despite the limitations, I think the march was a major American event. And while I appreciate the advances that we have made as a people, I realize that we still face some of the same challenges, such as unemployment, reduction in services, redlining, police brutality and economic disparity …
By Dick Gregory Activist-Comedian
There’d never been anything like this march. Nothing had ever brought that many people out, and they came with so much attitude and with so much dignity.
Everybody, or almost everybody, was there. Even the people who were not there were there. If you believe all the people who talk about “the day we marched,” you would have to say that in a sense all 20 million Blacks marched on Washington on August 28, 1963.
There was a festive air about that day, and it spread later to Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall and Eastern Europe, where people came out in the hundreds of thousands, acting the way we acted, singing, We Shall Overcome.
Have we overcome yet? Yes, we overcame the first phase, the physical phase–we got over the fear. We can say, in fact, that never before in the history of this planet has a people come so far in a short 40 years.
We’ve overcome the physical thing; now we’ve got to get the mental thing together and move to a new level. We are in a situation now where we need to create a new type of leadership that will create boycotts and economic actions across the board, a new type of leadership that is willing to be lied about, to be framed, to be crucified to make sure that we did not dream and march in vain.
By Dorothy I. Height President-Emeritus, National Council of Negro Women
An unprecedented quarter of a million people answered A. Philip Randolph’s call for a March for Jobs and Freedom. They came from all walks of life, all races, all income levels, all creeds … Indeed, they came from all over the world. It was a moment when one felt a part of America at its best.
I was the woman member of the United Civil Rights Leadership which rallied behind the call … and I was seated on the platform a little more than an arms-length from where Dr. King spoke. As I looked out from the platform, there were so many people from the reflecting pool to the base of the Lincoln Memorial that it was impossible to see the grass. All who spoke did so with passion and eloquence. When Dr. King stood reciting, “From every mountainside, let freedom ring …” it was a riveting sermon that struck the conscience of America and instantly took its place as one of the most famous speeches in human history.
Though I led several groups of women who appealed to have a woman among the speakers, Bayard Rustin held fast that women were members of all the organizations and churches represented … The women nevertheless wholeheartedly supported the March and afterwards held a gathering around the question, “After the March, what?” That movement was vital to awakening the women’s movement.
The situation has changed. The March accelerated the drive that resulted in the Civil Rights Act and there are notable advances for Blacks and women. Yet the righteous indignation about inequality is no longer active. We have the law but lack enforcement. Affirmative action, which was hoped would be a remedy for past injustices, is threatened. The progress laid bare the fact that many in the Black population are not in the economic position to take full advantage of the hard-won public accommodations as the law now provides. We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go even to create a climate for social justice.
By Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.
Forty years ago, August 28,1963, was a history-making day. The Civil Rights Movement held its largest and perhaps most powerful demonstration …
The leaders of the Movement, those of us called the “Big Six,” A. Philip Randolph, Whitney Young, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, Roy Wilkins and me, did not just wake up and decide there would be a March on Washington. The March grew out of an increasing sense of discontent and frustration with the pace of progress on civil fights …
In late June of 1963, President Kennedy invited several civil fights leaders to the White House to discuss the issue of civil rights and the need to pass a civil fights bill. It was in that meeting that A. Philip Randolph, the dean of Black leadership, said to President Kennedy in his robust baritone voice, ‘Mr. President, the Black masses are restless and we are going to march on Washington.’
President Kennedy was concerned about possible violence and suggested that if we stayed out of the streets there was a better chance of passing a civil fights bill. Mr. Randolph responded, ‘Mr. President, the Negro people are already in the streets and there will be a March on Washington.’ He spoke for all of us. We spent the following weeks organizing and encouraging people to come to Washington.
I still remember the tremendous sense of hope and optimism. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial you saw a sea of humanity. Some say it was only about 250,000 people, but I say it was the greatest undercount in the history of America.
You saw Black and White, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish, old and young, rich and poor … You saw Black and White feet dipped in the reflecting pool. You could feel the great sense of community and family. The March on Washington represented America at her best.
I was only 23 years old, chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the youngest speaker at the March. In my speech, I tried to speak on behalf of the indigenous people of the Mississippi Delta, Southwest Georgia and the Black Belt of Alabama. I spoke for my SNCC colleagues, courageous young men and women, who were jailed, bull-whipped and attacked by dogs during the sit-ins, demonstrations, Freedom Rides and voter registration campaigns throughout the South.
The most moving moment came when A. Philip Randolph presented Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the crowd. I had heard Dr. King speak many times before, but on this day he spoke from the very depths of his heart and soul … He shared his vision with the American people and inspired an entire nation to embrace that vision.
The March on Washington, especially the speech of Dr. King, not only educated and sensitized President Kennedy and members of Congress, but opened the eyes of an entire nation to the problems of race and civil rights. The March on Washington must be looked upon as one of the finest chapters in modern American history. It changed America forever.
By the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. Founder-President, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition
There have been bigger marches since then, but there has never been a more significant march than the great March on Washington which raised the bar of protest in America and moved us from massive adjustment to racism to massive resistance to racism.
I was a 22-year-old college student on that day. I had just been released from jail for protesting Jim Crow in Greenville, S.C., and I got into a car with four other students and activists and drove to Washington, D.C.
Like everybody else who attended that event, I was transformed, and my career and future were refocused and reshaped by what I did on that day and what I heard on that day.
I remember listening with tears in my eyes to the great words of Martin Luther King, who transcended on that day all categories, blending the spiritual and the political and the economic.
The March and its aftermath defeated Jim Crow, but the battle is far from over. For we are dealing now with Jim Crow Esquire, backed by more sophisticated weapons and technology.
And so we’ve got to do it again. We’ve got to put our marching shoes on again and recreate in the 21st century the great and still unfulfilled dream of the 20th century March and Dream.
By Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md. Chairman, Congressional Black Caucus
Times were hard in South Baltimore during the summer of 1963. Because I was 12 years old, I was expected to work to help our family whenever I had the opportunity.
That, as I recall, is what I was doing on August 28,1963–traveling in an old truck out into the countryside to make some money picking vegetables on a farm.
When we quit work early because of the heat, I asked the driver to turn on the radio in the truck. As I listened to Dr. King’s speech on the radio that day, he sounded so determined and hopeful about his dream for America.
I wondered, though, whether anything would change … Life did begin to get better for our family. With the money that we saved by Dad’s working overtime and Mother’s cleaning other people’s houses, we were able to buy our own home. I worked hard in school every day, and with a lot of help from people in our community, I began to get good grades for the first time …
Four decades later, however, too much of Dr. King’s dream remains unrealized.
There are those, including the President, who have asserted that segregation is an evil of our past.
Why, then, are minority school-children far less likely to receive an empowering education? Why is the unemployment rate for African-Americans still more than twice that of Caucasians?
Why are Americans of color far too often “racially-profiled” out of our right to justice, denied equal opportunity in the workplace and business world, and “redlined” out of our dream of home ownership?
Why are we still more likely to die before our time? Our struggle for jobs and freedom continues–but those of us who lived through 1963 know that we can prevail.
We must teach our children our traditional values of hard work, faith and discipline. We must keep up the pressure on our schools to educate every child–and participate in achieving that goal through our churches and social organizations.
Above all, the era of 1963 teaches us that freedom requires our active political engagement–that we cannot achieve either better jobs or freedom unless every family member, neighbor and friend is registered and votes.
We are engaged in a continuing, peaceful social revolution called democracy–and, as Dr. King often counseled us: “The most revolutionary action that our people can undertake is to assert the full measure of our citizenship.”
By Tavis Smiley Author, NPR Host
The March on Washington is one of the defining moments in the African-American struggle. The fascinating thing is that 40 years later, an interesting dichotomy has developed. On the one hand, we have a generation that is positioned to have the kind of access and opportunity that those in the Movement fought, struggled and died for. But on the flip side, we have the access and opportunity, but we don’t have the history.
My generation represents the first generation of Black folks in America who are assuming positions of leadership, responsibility and authority without the advantage of living through the civil rights era. So now, as we try to lead our people into this new millennium without the benefit of the struggle, we are challenged to make sure that our celebration does not turn into stagnation.
We cannot get so caught up in celebrating our success and our accomplishments and our achievements that we take, “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” as Dr. King said in his speech. Our generation cannot become so patient and so laid back that we get caught up in gradualism and mediocrity …
Even though we live in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever, we have become so “anti-immigrant,” with 9/11 as an excuse, that it seems that we’ve forgotten that immigration is what made this country great. Ideologically, on civil rights, human rights, and corrective programs like affirmative action, aggressive efforts are trying to turn back the dock. We have to counter this ideological coup d’etat taking place in America, from the White House on down … I fear that 40 years later, we’ve become so accustomed to the comforts and conveniences that the struggle has afforded us, we don’t recognize that we are still living in times of controversy and challenge …
On the 40th Anniversary of the March on Washington, I hope that we do not let White America get away with portraying King only, and exclusively, as a dreamer. They must acknowledge the rest of his work and his vision … But every time we celebrate Martin Luther King, people fast-forward to the “I Have a Dream” part. If we are going to talk about King and the March, then Black folks must demand from White America that they take a critical and comprehensive look at what the speech said and meant.
I learned the meaning of Dr. King’s speech when I was a young boy doing oratories in church. A deacon gave me the album of Dr. King’s speech and I played it over and over again until I knew it by heart.
Forty years after the March on Washington, there are so many issues that young Black kids face today, but I tell them, “If you’re old enough to be oppressed, then you’re old enough to fight oppression.'”
1963-2003 “RETURN, REPAIR, RENEW”
A coalition of more than 100 organizations representing civil rights, labor, women, church and human rights groups has schedules a mass rally at the Lincoln Memorial on August 23, 2003, to commemorate the 1963 March.
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