History would not wait in 1963.
When Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham, Alabama’s police commissioner, decided in early May to use firehoses and German Shepherds to disperse non-violent civil rights protesters — including children — millions of Americans saw the images on the evening news.
“Alabama now rivals the racist police state of South Africa,” James Farmer, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, told The New York Times, before urging President John Kennedy to intervene.
Later that month, Kennedy himself called the events “shameful,” noting that they were “so much more eloquently reported by the news cameras than by any number of explanatory words.” The young president had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 in the Senate for political reasons and had taken little action on civil rights in his first two years in office.
Hoping to seize the nation’s attention, leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), including Martin Luther King Jr., united with A. Philip Randolph of the Negro American Labor Council, which had been planning a march that would catalyze the nation’s attention and force the passage of federal legislation to end discrimination and the “economic subordination” of African-Americans.
The result was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963 that culminated at the Lincoln Memorial, where more than a quarter-million people gathered to hear speakers and musicians call for what King called in his Letter From A Birmingham Jail “our Constitutional and God given rights.”
It was to be the seminal moment in a moral crusade that transformed America, the reference point against which all marches and protests are measured. And 50 years later, as we mark our progress against that moment, the diagnosis is disturbing.
The Supreme Court has gutted one of the jewels of the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act, and seven Southern states have passed voting restrictions that would likely have been blocked by the law.
“When it comes to the economy, the black unemployment rate (12.6 percent) is nearly double that of whites (6.6 percent), almost the same ratio as in 1963,” writes The Nation‘s Ari Berman. “The average household income for African-Americans ($32,068) lags well below that of white families ($54,620) and declined by 15 percent from 2000 to 2010.”
The election of President Obama, who was two years old on the day of the first march, signals that the majority of American voters have no problem being represented by someone who could have been the victim of segregation just a few decades ago. However, the stop-and-frisk policies and “birther” scandals, along with the furious debate around the trial of George Zimmerman, show that the legacy of the issues that paralyzed much of this nation in 1963 linger — and perplex us — today.
Still, the images of that day in August, the antidote to the horrors of Birmingham, linger in the national consciousness as well, a constant reminder that the dream of America — the “promissory note” Dr. King described in his speech that day — must be constantly renewed by those who are willing to hold this nation to its founding promise that all are “created equal.”
Here are five things you should know about the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.