Political News

50 years after King, marchers gather again in DC

Posted August 23, 2013

— Next week, the nation's first black president, a living symbol of the racial progress Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed about, will stand near the spot where King stood 50 years ago and say where he believes this nation should be headed.

Then, like King, President Barack Obama will step away from the hulking Lincoln Memorial and return to where this nation is now.

As civil rights activists pause to consider the great strides toward equality that the 1963 March on Washington helped to spur, they also look at the current political and racial landscape and wonder: How much of that progress is now being undone?

This march anniversary comes just two months after the Supreme Court effectively erased a key anti-discrimination provision of the Voting Rights Act, unleashing a string of restrictive voting laws and rules in several states. The court also raised the bar for consideration of race in university admissions and made it more difficult to bring employment discrimination lawsuits.

There are other new issues, such as demands for a federal civil rights prosecution of George Zimmerman for fatally shooting unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin, and abiding ones, such as persistent unemployment among black Americans that runs at a significantly higher rate than that for whites.

"A convergence of things have happened that have exposed ... the fact that we are in a pretty important moment, kind of a democratic crossroads in this country," said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. "Crossroads or not, you have to continue the work of pushing forward."

The observances begin Saturday with a march from the Lincoln Memorial to the King Memorial, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton and King's son, Martin Luther King III. They will be joined by Martin's parents and family members of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was kidnapped, beaten and shot in the head in 1955 after he was accused of flirting with a white woman.

Sharpton has refused to call Saturday's march a commemoration or a celebration. He says it is meant to protest "the continuing issues that have stood in the way" of fulfilling King's dream. Martin's and Till's families, he said, symbolize the effects that laws such as the stop-and-frisk tactics by New York police and Florida's Stand Your Ground statute have in black and Latino communities.

"To just celebrate Dr. King's dream would give the false implication that we believe his dream has been fully achieved, and we do not believe that," Sharpton said. "We believe we've made a lot of progress toward his dream, but we do not believe we've arrived there yet."

Obama is scheduled to speak at the "Let Freedom Ring" ceremony on Wednesday and will be joined by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Along with their speeches, there will be a nationwide bell ringing at 3 p.m. EDT to mark the exact time King delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech, with which the march is most associated. The events were organized by The King Center in Atlanta and a coalition of civil rights groups.

Separately, a smaller march, led by people who participated in the 1963 event and young scholars and athletes, will make its way from Georgetown Law School in Washington to the Department of Labor, then the Justice Department and finally the National Mall. The group plans to march behind a replica of the bus that Rosa Parks was riding in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger.

Martin Luther King memorial in DC Triangle residents flock to DC for anniversary of civil rights march

Durham woman wants to follow in father's civil rights footsteps Durham woman wants to follow in father's civil rights footsteps

Busloads of North Carolina residents arrived in Washington on Friday, and more were expected over the weekend.

Tammie Harris, whose father was arrested during a 1957 sit-in at the Royal Ice Cream Parlor in Durham, said she wants to be part of the history she has heard her family talk about for years and feel what her father and others felt as they struggled for civil rights.

"This is a trip to say I take a stand for all that is right. It's something I can tell my children and grandchildren about," Harris said. "I think it's a great celebration for all people – not just black and white, for all."

Therman Couch and his wife, Finesse, traveled by plane, train, bus and car to get from Durham to Washington.

"We struggled for our rights. We're here to honor Dr. King and 50 years of what we think is going to be some improvement down the road," Therman Couch said. "I don't think I would be up here today with Dr. King. He's helped us to achieve in education. He's helped us to achieve who were are as men in America, who we are as black people in America. He was very, very important in my life and is still very, very important in my life and my children's life as well."

"We believe in the words in his speech that people should be judged by the content of their character and not color of their skin, and we have come to that time when it's more important now than ever," Finesse Couch said.

Two months before the Aug. 28, 1963, march, President John F. Kennedy made a passionate statement about the morality of racial equality. He introduced a civil rights law that prohibited discrimination in public accommodations and called for stronger action enforcing the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which struck down segregation in public schools.

William Jones, author of "The March On Washington," said that, at the time of the 1963 march, the ideal of racial equality already was accepted by many. The primary goal, he said, was to call for strong federal enforcement of that ideal and to push for a federal law prohibiting private employers and unions from discriminating against people because of their race.

The current Supreme Court also accepted the ideal of racial equality, Jones said, and stated the need for it in its recent decisions on voting rights, university admissions and employment discrimination cases but "backtracked" on the ability to enforce that ideal.

"In a sense, that's exactly the situation that organizers of the march were dealing with," Jones said.

In 1963, marchers arrived by bus, train, car and on foot on a weekday, many dressed in their Sunday best. Although marchers were mostly black, the crowd included whites, Jews, Latinos and Native Americans.

At that time, it was daring to walk through the streets and march in protest, said Phil Schaenman, who was in Washington in 1963 working on the manned space program. An amateur photographer, he had gone out with his camera expecting to see a riot and ended up joining the protest.

"I changed roles from being a spectator to joining in. I didn't realize I had stepped off the curb and joined in," said Schaenman, now a researcher on efficiency in local government at the Urban Institute.

The Economic Policy Institute has been producing regular reports under the banner of "The Unfinished March" to emphasize what it says is the unfinished economic history of the march. Demands at the march also were made for decent housing, adequate and integrated education, a federal full employment jobs program and a national minimum wage that would be the equivalent of more than $13 an hour in today's dollars.

The value of today's $7.25-an-hour minimum wage is $2 less than the minimum wage in 1968, according to the institute.

"To truly honor the march, we also have to recognize the unfinished demands," said Algernon Austin, director of race, ethnicity and the economy program at the Economic Policy Institute.

There clearly is far less overt discrimination today than there was 50 years ago, said Gregory Acs, director of the Urban Institute's Income and Benefits Policy Center. On the other hand, eliminating overt discrimination has bred insensitivity to the impact of policies that on the surface are said to be race-blind, such as jailing people for minor drug offenses or creating barriers to voting to make elections cleaner and more fair, Acs said.

"We still have a ways to go, but that we can have the conversation and continue having the conversation — there's clearly progress," Acs said.

Wednesday March: http://50thanniversarymarchonwashington.com/

9 Comments

This story is closed for comments. Comments on WRAL.com news stories are accepted and moderated between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Oldest First
View all
  • Common_Sensey Aug 26, 2:53 p.m.

    Civil rights=great! As it should be. Black youth crime in America=Bad. MLK must be turning over in his grave today..

  • bombayrunner Aug 23, 7:46 p.m.

    great american

  • bombayrunner Aug 23, 7:46 p.m.

    true hero

  • Rollin Like PDoobie Aug 23, 7:29 p.m.

    THe only difference this time is that these folks are not trying to abolish racism yet, they are trying to restore it with a twist. The twist being reverse racism.

  • Cock a doodle doo Aug 23, 7:17 p.m.

    "Move on! Grow up and stop living in the past." -kbkline

    I wish the yokels who think that the Confederate Flag is so very important would take your advice.

  • kbkline Aug 23, 6:42 p.m.

    Move on! Grow up and stop living in the past. Get away from the victim mentality.

  • whatelseisnew Aug 23, 5:54 p.m.

    "How on earth do they equate the two? Mind blowing..."

    It is all part of the victimology nonsense and it is DESTRUCTIVE. The Jacksons and Sharptons are loving it, they can stay well-heeled on the backs of blacks along with pretty much every Democrat politician. They just keep destroying people and lying to them helping to keep them hopelessly tied to Government handouts, millions incarcerated and millions killed.

    These are just Despicable people.

  • whatelseisnew Aug 23, 5:50 p.m.

    "As civil rights activists pause to consider the great strides toward equality that the 1963 March on Washington helped to spur, they also look at the current political and racial landscape and wonder: How much of that progress is now being undone?"

    None of it. The next stage is to get rid of the victimologists and the race baiters. The saddest aspect of Obama is he still thinks it is the 1800's. He is a classic profiler of anyone other than blacks. Where he COULD have been a huge uplifter, he instead chronically chooses to play the race card and the victom hood card. It is really a shame. He could and should be speaking out about ALL of the successful people in this country and how everyone has vast opportunities to obtain their piece of that success. He needs to speak out more to PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY, and reaching for personal dreams and reinforcing the message that this is possible for all. Does that mean everyone will achieve? No, but certainly many will respond and TRY.

  • bmac813 Aug 23, 4:34 p.m.

    I know most of you People were not around when King was giving his Peace Speeches, So go and Check this out for yourself, Trenton NJ, Atlanta Georgia, Watts California, Detroit Michigan, and a Few other places where King spoke and the Next Day it was SMOKE. They Burned the Cities Down. PEACE BROTHER.
    If the KKK went around and did the Same things, WOW. There wouldn't be any Statues Standing for them in Washington DC.