After half a century, the March on Washington has moved into the historical record as a courageous but hardly radical event. It is widely remembered for Martin Luther King’s brilliant extemporaneous riffs on “I Have a Dream.” But even a peaceful assembly by “Negroes,” as black Americans were then known, was a dangerous idea in a volatile era.
President John F. Kennedy was dead-set against it, and protest planners were careful about choosing their allies for fear of informants to the Kennedy administration and his Federal Bureau of Investigation. Civil rights leaders formally demoted their best strategist, Bayard Rustin — though he continued to do most of the work — because he was openly gay and a one-time Communist, either of which would have been ammunition for those who wanted to derail the civil rights movement.
The march succeeded, though, perhaps beyond its organizers’ wildest dreams. A solemn demonstration of the power of black Americans’ simple plea for full citizenship, it proved to be one of the pivotal episodes of the civil rights movement. Its success in setting the stage for the Voting Rights Act shaped politics for the next 50 years, helping to propel President Barack Obama into office.
In the current political climate, it’s easy enough to minimize the remarkable progress toward full equality that the nation has made since 1963. It’s true that racism lives on, re-energized by pandering politicians and media demagogues. The criminal justice system is replete with discriminatory practices. Pernicious stereotypes still shadow the lives of black Americans.
Most damning, black workers have come no closer to closing the economic gap than they had in 1963. The Washington Post recently cited figures from the Economic Policy Institute showing that the unemployment rate was 5 percent for whites and 10.9 percent for blacks 50 years ago. The yawning gap remains today, with unemployment at 6.6 percent for whites and 12.6 percent for blacks, according to the Post. Furthermore, over the past 30 years, the average white family has gone from having five times as much wealth as the average black family to 6 1/2 times, the Post said.
Still, it’s disrespectful to those hardy and brave souls who stood on the Mall 50 years ago to suggest that little has changed. The nation has undergone a remarkable transformation in five decades, as the two elections of a black president attest.