COMMUNITY VOICES | 50 years after the March on Washington: It's time to arise to today's civil-rights challenges

1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom  Photo Credit: Public Domain: 1963 March on Washington by USIA (NARA)

A version of this article originally appeared in MinnPost

On August 28, 1963, 250,000 Americans bravely descended on our nation’s capital to participate in The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The peaceful protesters poured in from all over the country to urge America to make good on her promise of "liberty and justice for all."

The March on Washington occurred during a tumultuous time in American history in which African Americans experienced racial segregation, barriers to education, employment, voting, and housing. They also faced discrimination in many of our nation's institutions and private establishments. Indeed, just nine years prior to the March on Washington, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. the Board of Education that racially segregated schools for blacks and whites were inherently unequal and in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Although the High Court's decision in 1954 was significant and represented a legal and moral victory for African Americans, the nation continued to struggle with issues of racial justice. Just one year after the ruling in Brown on August 28, 1955, America looked on in dismay at the horribly disfigured face of Emmett Till, a 14 year old African American boy from Chicago who was murdered in Money, Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. His killers were found not guilty by an all-white jury. Emmett Till's mother, Mamie, insisted on an open casket because she wanted America to see the ugliness of racial hatred.

Three months later on December 1, 1955, a seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This act of defiance against unjust Jim Crow laws landed Rosa Parks in the local jail, but more importantly, her act of courage sparked a national movement of nonviolent protests and helped to provide a platform for a young minister by the name of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Rosa Parks would go on to say that all she could think about was Emmett Till when she refused to give up her seat.)

By the time the March on Washington occurred in 1963, the nation had witnessed mass demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience by protesters throughout the country. The protesters endured bombings, police beatings, water hoses, police dogs, incarceration, counter-protests by angry whites, and even murder in some cases. Sadly, civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, was gunned down in his driveway in Jackson, Mississippi by a sniper just two months prior to the March.

Rather than discourage the marchers, the tribulations they faced catalyzed their resolve to persevere and take their cause to the seat of government. The quarter of a million marchers sang freedom songs, laughed, prayed, and listened intently to speakers representing various religious groups and civil rights organizations. They were comprised of blacks, whites, Jews, Gentiles, college students, children, the elderly, housewives, professionals, laborers, and teachers. Their demands included a higher minimum wage, and access to gainful employment and decent housing, among others. The highlight of the day was Dr. King’s famous, "I Have a Dream” speech, in which he articulated an incredible vision of what freedom and equality could like in America, if society were willing to work towards this goal. Some of the tangible evidence of the impact of the march came in the form of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Both bills represented important steps in addressing the challenges wrought by centuries of racism and discrimination.

In the 50 years since that momentous gathering in Washington, there has been some progress, but sadly not nearly enough. We are living in an era in which the discrimination that was once so blatant is now much more difficult to detect, yet the disparities in wealth, health, education, and income between blacks and whites demonstrate that racism still exists.

Racism may be out of sight to the unseeing eye, but it is not out of mind to the millions of African Americans still suffocating in what Dr. King called "an airtight cage of poverty." It is not out of mind to African American children and other children of color in our public schools who are struggling to obtain a quality education. It is not out of mind to the hundreds of thousands of African Americans who are entangled in the criminal justice system for low level, nonviolent offenses stemming from the war on drugs. And it is not out of mind for those who, despite their best efforts to find affordable housing and gainful employment, remain locked out of access to equal opportunity. These injustices serve to remind us that racism is not dead, it is merely in disguise.

As we remember the sacrifices of those who have come before us, it is high time that we awaken from our slumber and arise to the challenges that exist. Our predecessors fought valiantly in the civil-rights Movement of the 1960s. It is now our responsibility to pick up where they left off and begin the second wave of the civil-rights movement in 2013. We have come too far to turn back now.

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    Nekima Levy-Pounds's picture
    Nekima Levy-Pounds
    Nekima Levy-Pounds (nvlevypounds [at] stthomas [dot] edu) is an associate professor of law at the University of St. Thomas and director of the Community Justice Project.