Not an End, But a Beginning: The March on Washington Fifty Years Later

No less a luminary than Martin Luther King Jr. called it "the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation." He opened his comments by celebrating the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, in which President Lincoln ended slavery in the states that made up the Southern Confederacy that had seceded from the Union. "But one hundred years later," King lamented, "the Negro still is not free."

One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.
Fifty years have since passed. The question still haunts: are there yet Americans who are crippled by segregation and discrimination? Is the "lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity" still demarcated by race? Is the United States truly united, or is the African American experience, by and large, still fundamentally different from that of white America?

Those are rhetorical questions. The answers are as haunting as the questions.

Every year, on Martin Luther King Day, I read his fabulous Letter from Birmingham Jail. You can hear in that letter the tested patience of this Nobel Peace Prize winner, the exasperation that was nearer to the surface than our history books and national monuments acknowledge. And yet the Civil Rights Movement under his leadership was characterized not only by nonviolence but by hope--hope that stood in open defiance of the status quo and the forces dedicated to its preservation. King encouraged his audience that day to "forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. . . . Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force."

It's that soul force that propelled the movement forward--a consciousness of the inherent dignity of the cause and its champions, and a confidence that though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends inevitably toward justice.
We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
This hope was not naive, not pollyanic. It was disciplined and defiant, living in a stark truth while not allowing its vision to be constrained by the starkness of the truth of the moment. King was not ignorant of the tension of the time, and he was quick to alert the hegemonic forces of the status quo to the mess they'd made for themselves:

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
Until that day, Dr. King assured his audience, "We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back."

The quarter of a million people gathered that day heard this message from Dr. King--"We shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back"--even as he called on his audience to go back where they came from:

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.
All this came before Dr. King mentioned his dream, the dream we all associate with this march on Washington. And all Dr. King's comments came after seventeen others--including future congressman John Lewis and NAACP leader Roy Wilkins--made similar remarks about economic and racial disparity in the United States. Taking nothing from Dr. King's contribution to the long arc of moral history, this day was about more than his dream.

And, in the grand scheme of things--in the long arc of moral history--the day isn't over yet. Poverty rates for African American and Latino populations are twice those of white and Asian populations. As of 2008, one in every 106 prisoners in America was a white man over the age of eighteen, compared with one in every thirty-six for Hispanic men and one in fifteen for African American men. The unemployment rate among black people in the United States is almost exactly double that of white people.

So, fifty years after the march on Washington--and 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation--we still have a long way to go. "Now," Dr. King told his audience--and now, fifty years later, more than ever--"Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy."

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.
That's the dream that Dr. King articulated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial a half-century ago. It's a dream inspired by the prophetic words of the Scriptures--"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together"--and it's a dream propelled forward by hope that defies the cynicism of the status quo.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
That day isn't here yet, but this day isn't over yet.


Read more about the roots and early years of the Civil Rights Movement in volume one of Rep. John Lewis's graphic-novel memoir, March. Find my review here.

Read the ebook Remembering Birmingham by Ed Gilbreath to get a fuller understanding of the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.


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