On Wednesday, Aug. 28, hundreds of groups across the nation will gather to celebrate the most significant event in civil rights history since the Emancipation Proclamation. On that day, "the Great March," as it came to be known, brought 300,000 protesters to Washington, D.C., in the cause of freedom and social justice for millions of African Americans. It seems like a long, long time ago.
Like so many highly recognized events, the March on Washington did not occur as a result of some isolated event or group impulse. Not only was it carefully planned, it had been preceded by other, smaller, protests in Washington stretching back to the 1940s. Its organizers were A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and noted black activist and tactician, Bayard Rustin.
Out of racial foment throughout the country, Randolph and Rustin reached out to Dr. Martin Luther King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and later, the leadership of key groups including a black labor organization, the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. These groups formed an umbrella coalition, the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership. Together, they became known as "The Big Six."
At the time, President John F. Kennedy's rather tepid proposed civil rights legislation was stuck in Congress. Nonetheless, Kennedy disapproved of the March and urged Randolph, Rustin, King, and other members of the coalition to call it off. They refused. One of the main reasons for their refusal was that Kennedy, for purely political reasons, had become too cozy with southern Democrats, or "Dixiecrats."
In fact, it was somewhat surprising to see baseball legend Jackie Robinson weigh in on the subject. After all, Robinson was very conservative. But, in the matter of President Kennedy's opposition to the March on Washington, Robinson questioned his motives. In one of his series of letters, he wrote:
"The votes that (then) Senator Kennedy and some other Northern 'liberals' cast to send the 1957 Civil Rights Bill back to committee is a Southern-engineered attempt to kill any action by Congress to help Southern Negroes gain the equal voting rights promised to them by the Constitution." He hit that one out of the park.
Anyway, the March was a huge, unprecedented success. Although comprised mainly of African Americans, those in attendance were black and white; rich and poor; church leaders; UAW and other union representatives; top entertainers from the world of show business; and tens of thousands of others who traveled by bus, plane, automobile, on foot, or any way possible to get there.
Of course, the highlight of the event was Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech. In a section of the speech, at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King repeatedly referenced the Emancipation Proclamation and the lack of black progress in the 100 years since the proclamation was written. "One hundred years later," he said, "the colored American is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land." But that was then. This is now.
So, 50 years after the great March on Washington, where are we? Without a doubt, there has been considerable progress in race relations since 1963. That's the good news. But in a recent report from the National Urban League on the State of Black America, the progress is called "uneven." The report acknowledges the positive impact of various governmental programs and policies designed to level the playing field.
It goes on to say, however, that the black/white unemployment gap persists; the income gap persists; the wealth gap is growing; and that blacks are still substantially found in the ranks of America's poorest citizens. And so, as the old folks often say, the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.
In just a few days, President Obama will be addressing a gathering at the Lincoln Memorial as part of the national celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Great March. We should all be proud that America has its first African-American president. And, at the same time, we should all be ashamed that problems of race and class still persist in this great land of freedom, equality and opportunity. It's about justice, folks, and the time for justice is always "now."
Have a nice day.
Anderson resident Primus Mootry is a retired school teacher. His column appears Wednesdays in The Herald Bulletin.