The March on Washington–Is the Dream Still Alive?

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
’Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
Bob Dylan

I was only ten when the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom occurred fifty years ago on August 28, 1963 (you can do the math; yeah, I’m 60).  So no, I wasn’t there and I don’t remember hearing Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the time.  And I certainly didn’t know then about the murder of Medgar Evers two months earlier in June 1963, or Bob Dylan’s song about Evers, which he sang at the March.

But it didn’t take long for much of this to register with me.  By the next year, when I was eleven, I can remember picking up the Cleveland Press and reading about the Freedom Summer in Mississippi seeking to register black voters.  And I remember the murder that summer of the three civil rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—who were targeted by the KKK for their registration efforts.  And I recall reading with horror the following year about the murder of Viola Liuzzo, the wife of a Detroit Teamster leader, who after reading about the violence on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in which John Lewis was beaten nearly senseless in Selma, Alabama, had traveled to Alabama to continue the voter registration efforts in the deep South.  I guess I pictured my own mom doing so (not that she ever would have considered it), and what it would be like to lose her. 

Before I started high school, I was fortunate enough to see Martin Luther King speak in the chapel at Case Western Reserve University.  I remember him campaigning for Carl Stokes, the first elected black mayor of a major American city, but more so for MLK’s pointing out that racial discrimination was not limited to the south but was happening right in Cleveland.

So what’s the point of all this (besides to prove that I know my civil rights history)?  It’s that I am a product of the crucible I grew up in.  And to recall how far we’ve come in my lifetime—but also how far we still have to go.  After the March, Congress in quick succession passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), barring discrimination in employment (now my life’s work), the Voting Rights Act of 1965, ending tactics like poll taxes and literacy tests which were naked attempts to deny African Americans the right to vote, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.  And of course, within fifty years of the March, we’ve elected our nation’s first black president.

So yes, we have come a long way; but there is still a long road ahead.  This past Saturday I read an incredible column in the New York Times about the March and its impact today.  According to a study conducted in 2011 by Tufts University and the Harvard Business School, “Whites believe that they have replaced blacks as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America.”  Come again!?  No wonder the Supreme Court can effectively reverse the Voting Rights Act, as it did earlier this summer, saying “our country has changed.”  No wonder the Supreme Court can make it next to impossible to consider race in college admissions, as it ruled earlier this summer, despite a decision ten years ago expressly recognizing the need to do so in order to promote diversity.  And no wonder so many states are moving to enact Voter ID laws, which effectively would once again disenfranchise minority voters. 

Yes, the dream is still alive, but so is Bob Dylan’s prophecy.  His words unfortunately ring equally true today as they did fifty years ago.  While we are no longer taught to hate in school, too many of us are still a pawn in their game, afraid of true equality and freedom.  We need to act to revive the dream—in Martin Luther King’s closing words to let freedom ring.  Only then will we be free at last. 

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