WASHINGTON — The things we forget about the March on Washington are the things we most need to remember 50 years on.
We forget that the majestically peaceful assemblage that moved a nation came in the wake of brutal resistance to civil rights and equality. And that there would be more to come.
A young organizer named John Lewis spoke at the march of living “in constant fear of a police state.” He would suffer more. On March 7, 1965, Lewis and his colleague Hosea Williams led marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL. They were met by mounted state troopers who would fracture Lewis’ skull. As we celebrate Lewis’ ultimate triumph and his distinguished career in the House of Representatives, we should never lose sight of all it took for him to get there.
We forget that the formal name of the great gathering before the Lincoln Memorial was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Jobs came first, an acknowledgement that the ability to enjoy liberty depends upon having the economic wherewithal to exercise our rights. The organizing manual for the march, as Michele Norris points out in Time magazine, spoke of demands that included “dignified jobs at decent wages.” It is a demand as relevant as ever.
We forget that many who were called moderate — including good people who supported civil rights — kept counseling patience and worried that the march might unleash violence.
King answered them in the oration that would introduce tens of millions of white Americans to the moral rhythms and scriptural poetry that define the African-American pulpit.
“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now,” King declared. “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” How often has the opiate of delay been prescribed to scuttle social change?
King’s dream speech was partly planned and partly improvised, as Taylor Branch reported in Parting the Waters, his book on the early King years. One reviewer of the speech, a principal target of King’s persuasion, pronounced it a success. “He’s damn good,” President John F. Kennedy told his aides in the White House.
He was. King’s genius lay in striking a precise balance between comforting his fellow citizens and challenging them. Like Lincoln before him, King discovered the call for justice in the promises of our founders.